July 2007
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John Patterson Has Farming On His Mind

  Former Gov. John Patterson makes daily inspections of his Angus herd at his farm in Goldville.
Only Politician To Defeat George Wallace
Now Enjoys Bucolic Lifestyle

By Alvin Benn

John Patterson once was internationally known. Time magazine put him on its cover; he was featured in a movie and he had the distinction of being the only politician to defeat George Wallace.

That was then, this is now. These days, farming is what’s on the mind of Alabama’s 85-year-old former governor. It’s the Patterson Farm—the family homeplace where several generations have been raised.

Five decades ago, Patterson would have been in his office at the state Capitol in Montgomery—dealing with legislative matters, discussing with his aides the growing civil rights movement in Alabama and fielding phone calls from big city reporters.

John Patterson and his wife, Tina, enjoy country living at their farm in the Tallapoosa County community of Goldville.  
Today, he and his wife, Tina, have quiet lunches in an enclosed back porch overlooking their beautiful big lake. Herons glide gracefully over the water, looking for fish as ducks and geese raise a fuss on land, not far from where the couple is eating.

John and Tina love their bucolic surroundings and often spend part of their days together checking on their small herd of Angus cattle.

"I used to have Brooks Brothers suits, but I much prefer wearing country clothes," he said, as he and Tina conducted a guided tour in their little yellow John Deere four-wheeler. "They’re much more comfortable."

Instead of a snazzy suit and shiny shoes, Patterson wore a light blue shirt, tan slacks, a Caterpillar baseball cap and boots.

He seemed to thoroughly enjoy being a tour guide for Cooperative Farming News as his vehicle bounced over cow chips and holes when not crawling up hills on the big family spread.

They have 27 brood cows, a happy bull and 20 calves. It’s not unusual for them to help deliver one themselves, serving as bovine midwives, often late at night or early in the morning.

One calf turned up missing, but the couple found it several yards away—nestled on soft grass in a shaded area. It was a hot day and the calf, born only a few hours before, knew where to go to find relief.

Patterson became involved in the cattle business when he was Alabama Attorney General and renting a house on Cloverdale Road in Montgomery.

Gov. John Patterson meets President John F. Kennedy.  
"My next door neighbor was Ham Wilson, who founded the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association," said Patterson. "He got me interested and I’ve been raising them ever since."

As a gentleman farmer, Patterson’s main concerns these days center around his cattle. That’s why he’s a regular customer at the Clay County Farmers Exchange in nearby Lineville which is just across the Tallapoosa County line—basically a stone’s throw from his spread.

"They have everything I need there," says Patterson, who buys his cattle feed along with fertilizer and other items at the Exchange.

The former governor had special praise for Jeff Kinder, who manages the Exchange, saying "He does a wonderful job."

In addition to shopping at the business, he also enjoys going there on Saturday mornings to "shoot the bull" with other area farmers and cattlemen.

"We just sit around and talk," he said. "Everybody has a chance to speak his mind if he wants to. Mainly, we just have a good time."

Goldville, not much more than a tiny spot in the road about 20 miles from Alex City, is where Patterson was born in 1921. Rarely a day goes by that he doesn’t visit the vacant spot where his house once stood and where he made his debut.

"We’re sitting right where it used to be," he said, as he hit the brakes on his four-wheeler. "I was born in the front room, right about there. You can see where it dips off. That’s because the water drained off the roof and washed it out."

The old well is all that’s left of the family farm house. Patterson said the well was at the back of the house "and when you’d open the door you’d see it."

"It’s 75 feet deep," he said. "My grandfather built it. Only a few times did it go dry. When it did, we’d have to walk two miles to get our water from a spring."

When Patterson came home from the Army, he had a picture taken of himself drawing water out of the well.

"It’s unbelievable to stand here and realize what we used to have," he said. "I love coming here. It brings back good memories. My grandparents raised eight children. Six went to college. One went to Congress."

  John Patterson presents a rose from the family farm to his wife, Tina.
The most famous Patterson before John was LaFayette Lee Patterson, who served three terms in Congress, representing several rural Alabama counties in the late 20s and early 30s.

Gerrymandered out of his district because he was too liberal, LaFayette Patterson went to work for the Roosevelt Administration.

"He told me that when he was with the Agriculture Department, he was sent to South Texas for a project," said Patterson. "A young man met him at the train station. It was Lyndon Johnson."

John Patterson’s parents were teachers and he lived with them as they roamed the state looking for work. During the summer, though, he’d be sent to live with grandparents Delona and Molly Patterson. That’s where he learned to love the land and the people on it.

"Living on a farm makes you understand people," he said. "If I hadn’t been born and raised here and gotten to know folks the way I did, especially country people, I’d probably never have been elected governor."

Young John spent his early morning hours doing the chores around the farm. His grandfather was up at 3 a.m. and let his grandson sleep an extra hour before waking him to help feed the chickens and pigs.

They made some of their money selling eggs to rolling stores—businesses on wheels that provided rural folks with their basic needs.

"We’d have breakfast and go into the fields until about 10," Patterson said. "In the heat of the day, we’d come back to the house, have a light lunch and my grandfather would sit in his favorite rocker reading the Bible."

The two would go back out into the fields a little later and work until sundown. They were very close. John learned a lot from his grandfather who could sense that the boy was destined for greatness one day.

Patterson joined the Army in 1939 and was assigned to a field artillery unit when Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into World War II.

At first, he was on Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s staff in London as the Supreme Allied Commander planned strategy for the inevitable invasion of Europe.

Patterson didn’t want to sit behind a desk. He wanted to see action and that led to combat in North Africa and the European continent as his unit fought its way into Germany.

He began as a private and came home a major with a Bronze Star and a lot of campaign medals.

After World War II ended, he picked up a law degree at the University of Alabama, but was called back into the Army when the Korean War began.

When he came home again, Patterson joined his father, Albert, who had switched from education to the law. Together, father and son established a law firm in Phenix City.

The little East Alabama town had gotten the title "Sin City" for good reason. The mob had taken control of everything and attracted the military trade from across the Chattahoochee River at Fort Benning in Columbus, GA.

Slot machines, drug dealings, prostitution, loan sharking and other illegal activities had Phenix City in a vise of vice. Albert Patterson vowed to clean up the town.

In 1954, Albert Patterson ran for attorney general on a platform of ridding Phenix City of its sleazy reputation. He won the Democrat Party’s nomination that year. It was tantamount to election since the Republican Party was still years away from being a viable political force in Alabama.

On June 18, 1954—months before he would have taken office—Patterson was gunned down in an alley outside his law office near the Russell County Courthouse. He was shot three times at close range.

Patterson had been preparing to go to Birmingham to testify against men he felt had tried to rig the election in 1954 and defeat him in his bid to become Alabama’s highest ranking law enforcement official.

Martial law was declared in Phenix City; the Alabama National Guard was sent in and the mobsters eventually were run out of town and out of business.

Alabama Attorney General Silas Garrett, Russell County Prosecutor Arch Ferrell and Deputy Sheriff Albert Fuller were all implicated in Patterson’s murder. Fuller was sentenced to life in prison.

John Patterson filled the void left by his father’s assassination and took office as attorney general in 1955.

Not long after he became attorney general, "The Phenix City Story," starring noted actor Richard Kiley, was released nationwide. Kiley played John Patterson as a two-fisted avenger out to get those who played a part in the murder of his dad.

Three years later, Patterson became governor in a heated, racially-tinged campaign against George Wallace, who would eventually serve four terms as governor.

Historians are divided about just how good a governor Patterson was. Some say he was a skilled administrator and helped make Alabama one of America’s leading aerospace states.

Others said racial violence in several cities derailed much of the good he might have done for Alabama and that his legacy wasn’t what it could have been.

Patterson and Wallace eventually mended their political fences. In fact, Wallace appointed Patterson to the State Court of Criminal Appeals—a position he filled for nearly 20 years.

Many historians wonder what might have happened had Wallace, and not Patterson, won in 1958.

If Wallace had won, it’s likely he would not have stood in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama in 1963 in an effort to keep two black students from enrolling.

In 1962, Alabama had a law that prohibited constitutional officers from serving consecutive terms. That meant Wallace, if he had won in 1958, could not have succeeded himself as governor if he chose to run again.

Winning in 1962 gave Wallace a racially-divisive political platform to eventually launch several presidential bids in the mid-60s and early 70s. His bid to become president ended when a would-be assassin shot him in Laurel, MD.

In 1966, when Wallace wanted to run for a second consecutive term, he knew the state law had to be changed, but he couldn’t persuade the State Senate to change the existing law.

That’s when Wallace ran his wife, Lurleen, as a stand-in candidate. She handily defeated a big field of male opponents.

The succession law eventually was changed. Governors and other constitutional officers can now serve a second consecutive term—if they convince voters to support them.

Now in his twilight years, Patterson is aware he doesn’t have much time left, but isn’t all that worried. He knows he’s had an event-filled life most people can only dream of having.

The walls of his house are covered with photographs and awards. There are pictures of him with Presidents Kennedy and Truman, plaques from numerous groups honoring him for something he’s done to please them and photos of family members.

Patterson, who remains active in civic endeavors, recently joined other area leaders in helping to obtain a one-year extension for Lyman Ward Military School in nearby Camp Hill.

The school had announced earlier that it might have to close at the end of May due to declining enrollment and revenue.

Patterson’s telephone rings constantly and he monitors it to see which ones to answer or call back.

"This public service has got to end," he said, only half-seriously. "It’s going to get the best of me if it doesn’t. When you get to be my age, in the mornings it’s hard to get up."

Patterson has no doubts about where he’ll be buried—a family cemetery not far from the Patterson Farm. That’s where he’ll join his parents, grandparents and other relatives.

He said he used to get calls from someone in Montgomery asking him to be buried in an area set aside for deceased governors.

"I kept telling him I wanted to be buried in New Site with my relatives and friends," he said. "I told him that on Judgment Day when I come out of the ground, I don’t want to be down there with a bunch of politicians. He never called me back."

Until that day comes, Patterson will continue roaming his farm with Tina, stopping to pet some of their cattle and admiring the graceful flights of herons circling over their lake.

Now and then he’ll walk over to a fence on his property where tiny roses have been growing since the 1930s when they were planted as part of a Depression-era improvement project.

At the end of his tour, he snipped off a little rose and took it over to Tina, who sat in the four-wheeler watching him. The love in her eyes was evident.

When he gave it to her, they exchanged smiles. No words were needed.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.