World class shot putter died at age 21. Son Lee collaborated with author Gerald Haslam to tell his father's story
Lee Patterson restores classic cars and builds hot rods in his shop on Main Street.
But these days he’s immersed in another restoration project – a detailed look at his father’s short but celebrated life as chronicled in the latest book by noted California author Gerald Haslam.
Known simply as Lee these days, he was christened Orel Leon Patterson Jr. after his father – a migrant from Arkansas who was raised in poverty and became a world-class athlete at Taft High School and the University of Southern California before a kidney disease claimed his life at the age of 21.
The disease was initially diagnosed during a routine physical exam after he applied for a summer job in the West Side oil fields following his junior year at Taft High.
He told but a handful of people of the diagnosis and went on to become the first high school shot-putter to break the 60-foot barrier, then to USC on a track scholarship where he was expected to be the first collegiate discus thrower to break 200 feet and a sure-bet for the 1956 Olympics.
But life didn’t take him that far.
Leon Patterson Sr. died Nov. 24, 1954 in Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles during the fall semester of his junior year at USC.
Lee was five months old.
Much of the stuff for Haslam’s book came from a 330-page memoir written by Lee’s mom (she died in 2008), stories from teammates, classmates and others who knew Patterson Sr. and from a thick scrapbook of news clippings Lee’s grandparents kept.
“A lot of what Gerald uses in the book came from my mother’s biography of my dad and from that scrapbook,” Lee said.
He cherishes both.
“We became quite close,” Lee says of his contact with Haslam. “It was an incredible experience working with him on the book.”
Since the book was released last month Lee’s life has shifted gears from classic cars and hot rods to getting the word out about the book to family and friends.
“It’s been a busy time,” he said. “I’ve already distributed a bunch of books, and I’ve just ordered 75 more. I want to donate some copies to the Taft High library.”
He admits he hasn’t read the entire book – mostly the first and last chapters and some skimming in between.
“Every time I open it I just get overwhelmed. I know I’ll have time some day soon to get into it more thoroughly.”
Movie in works?
He’s also received feelers from movie companies interested in moving the Leon Patterson story from the pages of Haslam’s book to television or the big screen.
Shortly after his dad died, Dixie was paid a thousand dollars for the movie rights to Leon’s story, but a film never materialized. In 1956, ABC aired what Haslam characterized as “a schmaltzy, half-hour TV film about Leon’s life.”
Sports Illustrated “carried a touching tribute to Leon reportedly written by columnist Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times.”
USC named its award for the most inspirational freshman track and field athlete after Leon Patterson and Taft High’s track and field complex is named after Patterson and his beloved Wildcat shot put and discus coach Tom O’Brien.
But in the intervening years there’s been little to recall the legacy of Taft High’s boy wonder – until now.
Haslam traces the Patterson family’s migration from Arkansas, their adjustment after settling in Derby Acres, how Leon met the love of his life at Taft High, his “adoption” by two families starkly different from his and how he approached life after learning he was terminally ill.
Haslam, who grew up in Oildale and attended Garces Memorial High, talked about those issues last week in an interview on Valley Public Radio in Fresno.
“The question is, how does a young person 17, 18, 19 years of age deal with that knowledge,” he told VPR’s Joe Moore, describing the young athlete’s drive and determination as “a special gift he was able to channel into his internal instinct. He really grew with that experience and made everyone around him grow as well.
“I think it was a spiritual gift and that he was able to channel the frustration, the fear and the confusion of a diagnosis like that into his competitive instinct. He determined that he would do what he could do while he could as long as he possibly could without giving up.”
He described Patterson’s first girlfriend and future bride Dixie Kenney and coach Tom O’Brien as “miracles” in Leon’s life.
The book, co-written by Haslam’s wife of 53 years – Janice, details life as it was in Taft and Kern County after the Second World War and the Great Migration, including the mischief Patterson and his school chums often got into, including a scrape with the law that landed him in jail.
There are people like Leon’s best buddy Elvin Urquhart, other TUHS pals like Cork Donnel and Taft High Hall of Fame inductees Monty Reedy, Don Zumbro, Larry Peahl, Charlie Hannah and Dick Henning as well as other Valley sports greats like Bob Mathias, Rafer Johnson and Leamon King.
To get a copy contact Devil Mountain Books at: http.www.devilmountainbooks.com/books.html
Book, tax and shipping: $20. Email: CBSturges@aol.com
It’s also available on Amazon.com and a Kindle version is available at $7.99.
Local outlets are possible.