By Debbie Adams
Bob Patterson passed away on April 23. Even if you weren’t fortunate enough to have had him as your principal at William Byrd High School or as a Sunday School teacher at Vinton Baptist, or worked with him for a civic organization in the town, you might recognize his name—it’s on the football stadium at William Byrd High School—the Robert A. Patterson Stadium.
He became principal at WBHS in the fall of 1965 and remained in his position for 34 years. The stadium was renamed in his honor when he retired in 1999. He served as the Grand Marshal of the Vinton Dogwood Festival Parade that year as well.
Patterson was only 29 years old when he was named principal at William Byrd—one of the youngest principals in the state. When he retired, he was Virginia’s longest serving high school principal.
The Vinton Messenger published a special edition in his honor that spring, filled with accolades from the community.
In 1966 the Black Swan yearbook said, “Enthusiasm and spirit resounded through the halls of William Byrd this year as the students endeavored to carry the banner of a proud heritage. This enthusiasm was generated by the leadership of our new principal, Mr. Robert A. Patterson. Mr. Patterson proved to be a principal who merited respect from the entire student body through his zeal and diligence. He evoked cooperation from students by his willingness to listen to their suggestions, while at the same time reminding them of their responsibilities and expecting them to conduct themselves in a manner that would bring honor to William Byrd.”
School Board member Tim Greenway says, “Mr. Patterson was one of a kind! He had a rare mixture of humility and confidence rarely seen in people today. He never had to have the spotlight on himself and he approached every situation as if he were teaching a life lesson.
“I had the pleasure of being sent to the office a few times during my high school days (or at the time not so pleasurable). Every time Mr. Patterson would treat me with respect, firmness, and fairness. He would deal with the situation at hand and give you the feeling he believed in you as a person. You had more confidence leaving his office than you did before entering. As I look back on those times, I realize now he was giving me a life lesson on how to be a better person in my class and my community.
“Not only did I learn from him at school, but later I would attend Vinton Baptist Church where Mr. Patterson attended. Again, he would teach me life lessons on how to carry myself as an adult and as a respected member of our community. He remained humble, kind and respected throughout all the days of his life.
“There is a special place in the hearts of all of Vinton for the many lives he has touched. Just ask anyone who attended William Byrd High School during his tenure as principal,” Greenway said. “Truly one of kind!”
“Mr. Patterson (it was always difficult for me to call him Bob) was a great man who touched the lives of thousands of people in our community,” said Vinton Mayor Brad Grose. “Everyone loved Mr. Patterson and appreciated his positive approach to life. The meaningful discussions that we had while serving together on the Vinton Planning Commission are memories that I will always cherish! During these conversations, I learned about Vinton, our citizens, and his strong faith in God. Mr. Patterson loved to serve the Lord by serving his fellow man and his community.”
(Patterson served for over 21 years on the Vinton Planning Commission and over 46 years on the Highway Safety Commission.)
“Mr. Patterson was the kindest and most sincere person that I have ever encountered in a school system, both during my own time at Byrd and since,” said Vinton Assistant Town Manager Pete Peters. “He always made time to speak, asked how you’re doing, and was remarkable with remembering names. When you pair his care of others and gentle demeanor with those identical characteristics of his wife Jeanette, it’s hard to imagine a nicer couple who have done more for their community than those two.”
Vice Mayor Keith Liles said, “I had the privilege of knowing Mr. Patterson in two different roles–one as the WBHS principal and another working with him on the Vinton Planning Commission. In every encounter, he greeted you with a smile and a handshake and was by far one of the most genuine men I have ever known. He was funny and his love for the town of Vinton came through–but more than that his love for people always came across first and foremost.”
“Mr. Patterson was not only my high school principal, but a neighbor, and I spent many happy days playing with his daughter, Leigh, at their house,” said Kimberly Barlow Cook. “My strongest impression of Mr. Patterson was that he was always ready with a smile and a friendly welcome. His attitude was always positive, and he just made you feel good to be around him. I remember his unassuming, but steady leadership as principal of our high school. I only had one occasion that I recall of being called to his office, and it was to receive congratulations for an academic honor. Under his guidance, our school provided many students the opportunity to advance themselves through education. William Byrd High School gave me the foundation to continue on to college, then a career as a software-systems engineer, and now, a career as an elected official. Mr. Patterson was an integral part of our school and my success.”
“Even though a number of years have passed since Mr. Patterson retired, everyone I talk to in the Vinton community still speaks of him with incredible respect and fondness,” said School Superintendent Dr. Ken Nicely. “He left behind a legacy of character and leadership at William Byrd and clearly cared about the well being of students.”
WBHS alumni Lisa Liles says, “He was a wonderful man—he always made you smile and laugh. He was an excellent principal and cared about his students—that came through immediately. A beautiful soul who will be missed.”
“I adored Mr. Patterson,” said Laurie Mullins. “His kindness and Godly example were what many high school kids needed. I remember everyone respecting him at school and he always greeted you and made you feel special. He was such a genuinely kind man and will always be remembered.”
“Bob was a great guy and an awesome principal with an open office policy, fair to everyone, and always with a smile,” said Bootie Chewning, teacher and former School Board member.
Vinton Messenger Sports Editor Brian Hoffman notes, “I’ve always admired Bob Patterson. He was a very friendly man who remembered everyone’s name and always had a nice thing to say. As the sports editor I enjoyed his time as principal as he was a sports guy and had a great perspective on high school sports. The stadium at Byrd is named for him, and you can’t have a higher honor than that. He was one of the all-time greats.”
Board of Supervisors member Jason Peters said, “Bob Patterson was a great leader in our community. It was an honor to have him as my principal at William Byrd and then to serve with him to build the Vinton/Roanoke County Veterans Monument. Mr. Patterson gave back to his community in so many ways. He was loved.”
Patterson served on the Board of Directors of the Vinton First Aid Crew. Wayne Guffey says, “He was very supportive of the crew. I personally respected him a great deal since he was my principal. He was always kind and caring—I think every student he ever came in contact with can say that about him.”
“I had three children who attended William Byrd and I spent a lot of time volunteering there over the years,” said Linda McCallum. “Mr. Patterson so kind and very grateful for the volunteers. He always took the ladies who put together the Newsletter out to eat at the Hotel Roanoke for lunch. During the 1992-93 school year, I was in charge of the Membership Committee for the PTSA. The membership had waned over the years, and it was my goal to get 100 percent membership. Mr. Patterson challenged me to get that number. We made a deal that if we got 100 percent membership, he would spend the night on the roof of the building. With that goal in mind, we worked very hard and actually got 101 percent. He was good to his word, and he and Mr. Wymer spent the night in a tent on the roof of the middle school building after a Friday night football game.”
Barry Trent, who graduated from William Byrd when Patterson was principal, and then returned to work for him as a teacher and a coach, said, “I had the utmost respect for him as a person and as my employer. He was so kind and supportive—always interested in whatever you were doing. He took so much pride in William Byrd.”
Patterson helped him make the decision to enter the field of education.
“He had a strong faith which was always evident,” said Trent. “He had incredible integrity. Standards were quite high for athletes in the ’70s and ’80s and Mr. Patterson supported his coaches enforcing the rules and living by high standards themselves. He was very fit and encouraged others to do the same—although he never saw a hospitality room he didn’t like.
“I ran across him once in the courtyard at William Byrd sowing grass seed,” said Trent. “It’s just the kind of guy he was—no job was too small.
“His wife Jeanette was always right there with him—they were truly a team,” Trent said.
Longtime friends Steve and Jo-Ann Lonker commented, “His sense of humor was exceptional. One day we came home, and our back yard was full of plastic flamingoes. Of course, Bob knew nothing about it. Once we questioned Bob’s seeing an albino deer at the Peaks of Otter. He proved to us he had seen one by bringing a plastic one in his car’s trunk that he opened and closed quickly. You never knew what to expect.”
Close friend and acclaimed coach Norm Lineburg first met Patterson when they taught together at Andrew Lewis. They struck up a conversation on first meeting which resulted in them being roommates for a couple of years and lifelong friends.
“Bob was one of the finest human beings I have ever met in my life,” says Lineburg. “He never cursed, never said a bad word about anyone. He was a loyal friend. I have never been around a classier person.
“Bob was so intelligent, and also such a tremendous athlete. He could coach any sport. He was always so positive. The kids loved him. On sports trips he would make sure all the kids were taken care of, especially those who didn’t have as much. He also loved to play jokes and kid around—he was such a fun guy—tremendous with kids and adults.
“He was not an ‘I’ person; he was a ‘we’ person,” said Lineburg. “He was always helping someone. He was as close to a perfect person as I have ever been around.”
Current WBHS principal Tammy Newcomb, who revered Patterson as her own principal and as a colleague, says he will be honored at the Class of 2020 graduation ceremony.