Wednesday, June 28, 2017

V 7 N. 41 Leon Patterson and the First High School 60 Foot Shot Put

Since our blog has been filling with obituaries lately, we thought we would continue in that vein with a sad story of the young man who was the first sixty foot high school shot putter.   This came from Pete Brown down in Plano, TX.   The story appeared 16 years ago in the L.A. Times written by Earl Gustkey.  
 Pete and I spent an afternoon and evening together  last April, a much awaited meeting, because we had been corresponding for at least 6 years but had never met.  Pete is a U. of New Mexico Lobo from the early sixties and a track nut since the early fifties when his dad started taking him to the big meets in Los Angeles.   He has an extensive collection of Track and Field literature and supplies my co-conspirator Roy Mason with  issues of Track and Field News whenever Roy's collection is missing a copy.  In fact Roy was missing all of 1963, and Pete loaned that year to us.  I also have some loaners from Pete which I'll be passing on to you in the near future.  

Here's a brief note Pete sent me not long ago.  It shows you his passion for the sport.

Last night I read the June 1955 T&FN covering the NCAA meet in the LA Coliseum. I went both days and loved it. The big things I remember at age 15 were Mike Larabee of SC false starting twice in the semis of the 440, Jim Goliday winning the sprints, Arnie Sowell falling asleep in 880 semis and not qualifying, Tom Courtney winning final, Bill Dellinger getting upset by teammate Jim Bailey in 1500, and J.W. Mashburn winning 440 in 46.6.

This must be the first time I’ve reread the details of that meet from the arrival of that issue until now. I could barely get to sleep.

T&FN had the makings of the bible of the sport, but had not mastered how to cover it. Your guy Hill really put them over the top. He must be very organized. Back then there were typos and lots of chaos in how they approached things. Having started two businesses from scratch in my life, the first one with no capital, I can sympathize what they were going through. Thank goodness for the Nelson’s and all their passion.  Pete

Hard Life and a Short Life : Taft's Leon Patterson Could Have Been Great, but He Succumbed at 21 to Kidney Disease in 1954
TAFT, Calif. — The grave is south of town, in the cemetery on the bluff, just above the dusty sage lands of the southwestern San Joaquin Valley.
The flat headstone is a few feet away from the tree-lined road.
It reads:
About 300 yards away, down a brush-covered slope, is Taft's complex of a half-dozen youth baseball diamonds. In spring and summer, cheers and cries of excited children carry up the slope, toward the grave of a young man who may have been the little city's greatest athlete.

In 1952, Leon Patterson became America's first high school athlete to exceed 60 feet with the 12-pound shot. Before that, he was a football player recruited by Notre Dame, USC and UCLA.
But before that . . . a childhood of tears.
When he was 6, his parents hired him out as a fruit picker. By the time he was 10, he was an experienced field hand. His earliest memories were not of games or Christmas mornings, but of scrambling up and down ladders in peach orchards, a heavy bag hanging from his neck.
Field work toughened the child laborer. At 14, he had the body of a powerfully built man.
Later, at USC, as a discus thrower, he seemed on his way to the 1956 Olympic Games.
But a silent, unseen clock was ticking against Leon Patterson. While he was becoming one of the nation's best collegiate discus throwers, he was dying. Only his family and a few of his close friends shared his secret: He had a fatal kidney disease.
When Leon Patterson died at 21 in 1954, it left this little San Joaquin Valley oil town distraught. But for most, as the years rolled into decades, the pain ebbed.
In a way, the story of Leon Patterson has never been told. After he died, his widow was paid $1,000 for movie rights to his story, but a film was never made. In 1956, ABC aired a corny, superficial 30-minute television drama, "A Life to Live By," based on Patterson's life.
Today, few, if any, of the summer baseball players down the slope from his grave have ever heard of Leon Patterson.
Years back, they renamed the Taft High track for him and his old coach, Tom O'Brien. Recently, O'Brien and a visitor found two Taft High track athletes lolling under the bronze plaque that reads:
"Patterson/O'Brien Field."
Neither knew who Leon Patterson was.
O'Brien is 78 now, ailing and frail. On nice days, he sometimes visits the grave. Thirty-seven years later, he still cannot talk about Leon Patterson without crying.
The only other regular visitor to the grave is Leon Patterson Jr., 37. He has an antique car restoration business here. He was 4 months old when his father died.
"The amazing part about the story is that my 6-year-old son, Kenney, is somehow touched by my father," Leon Patterson Jr. said.
"I have a 1952 video of my father winning the shotput at the State high school meet in the L.A. Coliseum. Kenney watches this. Every time, he starts to cry--every time. He says: 'I miss my Grandpa . . . '
"My wife and I can't understand it. I mean, I never knew my father. . . . Yet, it's almost like Kenney somehow knew him."
The story of the Patterson clan seems to have leaped off the pages of "The Grapes of Wrath." Except that Marvin Patterson and his family were Arkies, not Okies named Joad. Also, the Pattersons had a third enemy, besides poverty and despair--alcohol.
George Patterson, 62, was Leon Patterson's oldest brother. Another brother, Calvin, died in1973.
HS graduation picture

Showing his capacity as an all rounder

"My dad, who had a grade-school education, grew up on a farm in Clarksville, Ark., that had been homesteaded by his grandfather," said George Patterson, who lives in Hesperia.
"When the Depression hit and the Dust Bowl years came, all the farm country went bad. Dad was hit pretty hard, and things went from bad to worse. He decided he should sell out and go to Fresno. So in 1937, when Leon was a baby, we sold out and headed for California.
"It took us a few years to get there. Mom and Dad would follow the crop harvests along the way. They worked as field hands. So did Calvin and I."
Dixie Nezat, Leon Patterson's widow, said recently: "Leon once told me his earliest memories were climbing up and down ladders in Mendocino County peach orchards with a 60-pound peach bag hanging from his neck.
"Before he was 10, he'd chopped cotton, weeded it and picked it."
George Patterson remembered: "We wound up around Taft because (Dad) got an oil-field job near there."
In the early 1940s, Marvin Patterson and his two oldest sons built a small house in Derby Acres, a dusty little community of small houses and bare yards, eight miles north of Taft. The little house still stands, and was guarded one recent afternoon by an angry dachshund.
George Patterson remembers his family as typical of many that bounced about the San Joaquin Valley in the 1940s, living from one crop-picking job to the next.
"We were just one family out of thousands, struggling to make it up to middle class," he said. "Mom and Dad were basically field hands, until we got to Taft. We all were. When we got to Taft, Dad had steady work for the first time in his life.
"At first, he was just an oil-field roustabout. Then he became a well-puller and a general oil-field contractor. But his drinking held him back all his life."
Dixie Nezat remembers the despair her first husband frequently expressed over his parents' alcoholism.
"Leon used to tell me that when he was a little boy, he'd save pocket change he'd earn from odd jobs, but his parents would take it from him to buy alcohol," she said.
"Then once he hit on the idea of hiding his money in a ceiling light fixture. But they found that, too. Most of the time, his mother cooked beans. Or eggs. Ham hocks and beans was a special occasion.
"When Leon and I started dating, at Taft High, I learned he had never had a steak, a lobster or a salad in his life. And he had never had a Christmas tree."
In the fall of 1949, the girls of Taft High held an election to determine "the ideal composite man." On the ballot, girls were asked to vote for Taft High boys with the "best smile," "best clothes," "best car," "best personality," "best eyes," etc.
The runaway winner in the "best build" category was Leon Patterson. He was a 14-year-old sophomore at the time.
"Leon was physically mature at 12 or 13," Nezat remembered. "He was shaving when he was 13. He weighed about 185 pounds when he was a freshman."
Patterson was a natural. Taft had never had an athlete like him. He could run, throw, catch, jump and had great strength. As a freshman, he was not only a running back on the Taft varsity football team, but a prime player.
According to a 1949 issue of the school newspaper, the Gusher, sophomore Patterson became a star by scoring four touchdowns in one game--the opponent wasn't identified--including the game-winner.
In his junior season, he became the terror of Kern County prep football. He was a powerful fullback with sprint speed whose trademark was hurdling tacklers in the open field. College recruiters became regulars at Taft games.
In his sophomore track and field season, Patterson, on raw strength, placed third in the State meet in the shot with a put of 53 feet 11 inches--on his last attempt. In his junior year, he won the State meet at 59-2 1/2.
At the time, no high school athlete had ever surpassed 60 feet with the 12-pound shot. And this was still the shotput's Stone Age, an era of dirt rings when all but USC's Parry O'Brien were using a 90-degree release in the event. O'Brien, using a 180-degree release, broke the 60-foot barrier with the 16-pound shot in May, 1954.
Patterson became the first high school shotputter to pass 60 feet in his senior season, at the Kern County Relays, and he did it five more times in the spring of 1952. He broke the national prep record in the event and then lost it to Bill Nieder of Lawrence, Kan.
But Patterson got it back in the 1952 State meet at the Coliseum with a put of 60-9 7/8.
In Taft High's photo collection, there is a 1951 photograph of the male lettermen in the Block T Club. Patterson, in a white T-shirt, sits in the center of a group of athletes, looking vaguely like actor Jeff Bridges.
In the photo, most of the young men seem to be looking at him. He is smiling happily at the camera, which has sharply captured his broad chest, muscular shoulders and biceps.
It is almost as if only he is in focus, the others slightly fuzzy. And it's as if he is their center of gravity.
Patterson won his first State shotput championship in June, 1951. Several days later, a doctor told him he was dying.
Dolores O'Brien, wife of the Taft High track and field coach, remembered the day recently. Her husband, recovering from a stroke, has difficulty speaking.
"Leon had gotten a summer oil-field job after his junior year at Taft High, and had to go get a routine physical," she said.
"We learned later albumin (a protein) had shown up in his urine, and the doctor told him he had Bright's disease (a fatal kidney disease now called glomerulonephritis), that he was fatally ill.
"He came right to our house that night, just burst through the door. He told us a doctor had told him he was going to die. He was in tears, and we just couldn't believe it. I mean, he was a big, strong, healthy-looking kid. Tom was furious with this doctor, and he took Leon and went out to see him first thing the next morning.
"Tom started to chew out this doctor, and the doctor quickly took Tom in another room, away from Leon. He told him firmly that he felt Leon had about two years to live.
"Well, we still didn't believe it. Monte Reedy, another Taft coach, took Leon to see a specialist somewhere in the Bay Area. His diagnosis was the same. That doctor also told Leon that if he continued to play football, he was risking dying even sooner."
X-rays also revealed a kidney deformity. Patterson had, instead of two kidneys, one horseshoe-shaped kidney, with three lobes, a malformation doctors today say is not rare. But the added factor of Bright's disease meant that Patterson's one kidney was in a rapid state of disintegration.
Old teammates, relatives and even his widow can't recall if Patterson, until his final trip to the hospital, ever accepted the notion that he was dying a little bit every day.
"I don't think any of us, including Leon, ever fully accepted that," his brother George said.
"My God, if you'd just seen him--he looked like a kid who could bend a crowbar. We just believed that somehow he would beat this thing. I know I just put it out of my mind."
Patterson dropped off the Taft football team that summer. And it is believed he told no one outside his family and close friends how serious his disease was.
Taft High's 1952 yearbook contains this sentence, summarizing the '51 Taft football team: "The Taft Wildcats were mishandled by Lady Luck as they lost four footballers who would have made up a possible championship team. The Wildcats lost Dale Stineburg in a hunting accident, Leon Patterson through illness . . . "
When Patterson's story is told to kidney specialists now, they say he probably would have lived today.
"There was no dialysis then," said Shaul G. Massry, chief of nephrology at USC. "Today, over 150,000 people a year are dialyzed in the U.S., some for more than 20 years.
"Glomerulonephritis is an acquired condition. Often, it is a bacterial infection, but there are many unknown causes, too."
Leon Patterson met Dixie JoAnn Kenney at a hamburger stand across the street from Taft High when he was a sophomore and she was a freshman. Patterson, with only a marginal family life of his own, responded eagerly to the affection shown him by Dixie Kenney.
She remembers inviting Patterson to her parents' house one Christmas and giving him a small Christmas tree, which Patterson said he had never had.
"Most of our dates were spent doing homework," she said. "Leon was a smart kid but by the time he got to Taft High, with his parents moving from one crop-picking job to another, he'd been to 42 grammar schools. He was never caught up in his schooling, and so I helped him a lot."
She also gave him his first and only car.
"When we got married in 1953, my wedding present to him was a new black Pontiac," she said. "I'd never spent any of the money I earned in part-time jobs in high school, so everything I had went to the down payment for that car."
In June, 1952, Taft High's athletic boosters organized a testimonial banquet to honor Patterson for his second consecutive State shotput title and his breaking of the 60-foot barrier.
Hundreds attended. But not his parents.
Dixie and Leon's Wedding
"They just didn't show up," Dolores O'Brien recalled. "That really hurt Leon, and he never got over it."
Said Nezat: "It always bothered Leon that not once did his parents ever come to any of his track meets, not even when he won State championships."
In his junior year at Taft High, the O'Briens knew that things were not going well at home for Patterson. His parents' drinking was causing the clan to fall apart.
"Leon came by early one morning and asked to speak to Tom outside," Dolores O'Brien recalled.
"He told Tom his father had been drunk all night and had beaten him. Well, I think Tom just laughed at first. Then he saw that Leon was serious. Leon's father was half his size. Leon could have squashed him, like an ant.
"But apparently, he'd never touched his father during this long altercation. Then Leon asked Tom if it would be OK if he moved in with us.
"Tom and I talked about it but decided against it. We later told him he should stay home and try to work out problems, not to run away from them.
"Well, we've thought about that many times over the years and sometimes we second-guess ourselves. After all these years, I still wonder if in the hour of his greatest need, we'd failed him."
Every collegiate track and field power in America recruited Leon Patterson. USC, knowing the seriousness of his illness, gave him a full athletic scholarship.
At 6 feet and 200 pounds, Patterson was slightly undersized for the 16-pound college shot and quickly converted to the discus.
Dick Bank, now a noted track and field authority, worked in the USC sports information office in the early 1950s.
"It was common knowledge when Patterson came to SC that he had some kind of kidney problem, that it was the reason why he wouldn't play football," Bank said recently.
"But no one I knew was ever aware he was dying."
Bank recalled an incident in Patterson's freshman season that revealed his modest family circumstances.
"When the track team traveled, the athletes were issued cardinal sport jackets and shirts with USC logos," Bank said. "You were supposed to supply your own slacks. Leon didn't have any slacks; he only had a pair of jeans. And no money.
"I remember it was a problem, one that embarrassed him, but I can't remember how it was resolved. Someone must have bought him a pair."
Bank also recalled a monumental athletic achievement, one that grew considerably in stature after Patterson was gone. It was in the 1954 NCAA meet at Ann Arbor, Mich. Patterson, entering the final stages of his disease, competed in the discus with blurred vision, lower back pain, swollen feet and ankles, and headaches.
"Leon was down big in the competition, but he came from far back on his next-to-last or last throw and took third place (at 169 feet 1 inch)," Bank said.
"Five months later, he was dead. That's when the impact of that third-place throw in the NCAA meet really hit us."
Jack Larsen has been on the USC accounting faculty for 28 years. In 1954, he was the track and field team's manager.
"I've never forgotten riding on the bus from a hotel in Ann Arbor to one of those 1954 NCAA meet sessions," he recently recalled. "I sat next to Leon. We got to talking about his feet and ankles. At that stage, he was having to cut his track shoes to get into them. He told me on that ride it was due to Bright's disease.
"Then he said: 'I've been told I have a short life span.'
"I've never gotten over Leon. When (former USC football star) Ricky Bell died (of the muscular disease cardiomyopathy in 1984), it all came back to me.
"In fact, I live the whole Leon Patterson story over every time a prominent athlete dies young--Hank Gathers, Len Bias, Joe Roth, Flo Hyman . . ."
If, in his short life, Patterson had an idol, it was probably Sim Iness.
Iness, a USC graduate, was a world record-holder in the discus, at 190-1, when Patterson knew him.
Iness, 59, a physical education teacher at Porterville High, recently recalled that Patterson was more impressed that Iness had won the gold medal in the event at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games.
"We talked about the Olympics a lot," Iness said. "I knew he wanted to compete in the Olympics more than anything."
Another teammate, pole vaulter Ron Morris, said Patterson left him with a lesson in life--how to appreciate life itself, and to grow with its disappointments.
"I was as close to Leon as any of us in those years, and my memory of him helped pull me out of a bad period in my own life in 1956," he said.
"I was very confident of making the '56 Olympic team. That was my year, I felt. But I just missed it. At the Olympic trials, I finished fourth, on fewer misses. It crushed me.
"I was terribly disappointed, for days. Then it came to me: 'Wait a minute, Leon wanted to go to the '56 Olympics, too, and he not only didn't make it, he didn't even get to live.'
"When I thought of it that way, it changed my perspective."
Indications are that Patterson, without Bright's disease, would have been at least a contender for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team. On May 3, 1954, in an invitational weight meet at Pasadena Muir High, six months before he died, he had his best throw, 178-8.
That was the eighth-best throw in the world in 1954. The world record at the time was 194-6and the first 200-foot throw was still eight years away.
And 178-8 would have earned the bronze medal in the '56 Olympics. As it turned out, the bronze medalist, on a throw of 178-6, was Patterson's USC teammate, Des Koch, who died in an automobile accident last January.
Like the rest of his teammates, Morris' most vivid memories are the ones he wishes he couldforget.
"The last few weeks of his life, seeing him waste away . . . I still wonder what he had on his mind," Morris said. "I mean, we were all 20, 21. What does a 21-year-old kid know about life? What did he think about, those last days?
"Before he went in the hospital the last time, we'd see him not looking so good, jaundiced and bloated. Near the end, he was so bloated, his eyes were swollen shut.
"Yet, when I visited him in the hospital the last time, he was upbeat, talking about plans he had when he got out of the hospital.
"But we all knew he wasn't going to make it, and we knew he knew."
And by the summer of '54, Dixie Patterson knew that he knew. No longer could her husband tuck death away somewhere in his mind. He could feel it coming.
She recalled his final summer, spent largely in a grape-packing house near Bakersfield.
"We'd just had a baby, and Leon was obsessed with earning extra money," she said. "We could work overtime, as long as we wanted. I remember one day I worked 23 hours and made $25.
"We had to make enough payments on Leon's car--$98 a month--to carry us through the school year, when we didn't earn much money.
"Late that summer, Leon's ankles got really swollen. He went to see another doctor. He came back and told me everything was OK. But without Leon knowing, I went to see the doctor, and he told me Leon had about three months to live. As it turned out, he was almost exactly right."
Leon Patterson Jr. and his son Kenney

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A tragic amazing story. I was a high school at the same time. I saw Leon compete a number of times in the Central Section (San Joaquin Valley) track meets. This was great time for our area with athletes like Leamon King (Delano HS), Rafer Johnson (Kingsburg HS), and a few years before like Bob Mathias and Sim Iness (Tulare HS). A few years later we Tommy Smith (Lemoore HS), Randy Willams (Edison HS Fresno). These are all Olympians from our area. Sad that Leon was not able to make himself.

V 9 N. 9 The Peerless Four by Victoria Patterson, a book review

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