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Epilogue | William A. Patterson

A courtly lawyer with an open heart, mind

ST. PETERSBURG — William A. Patterson was 28, tall and handsome, with impeccable manners and an air of niceness.

He was fresh out of law school, dipping a toe into a world beyond his years.

He worked in St. Petersburg as a junior lawyer for Paul H. Roney, who went on to become a well-known judge.

Roney recognized his employee's skills and natural political panache. He made a suggestion: Why not run on the Republican ticket to become the county's Juvenile Court judge?

"I figured I'd make some friends, even if I didn't win," Mr. Patterson told the St. Petersburg Times in 1962.

He got more than friends.

In 1962, Mr. Patterson became Florida's youngest elected judge. Four years later, he became a circuit judge. In more than a decade on the bench, he determined the fate of hundreds of criminals and troubled teenagers.

He often banned reporters from trials. He had seen offenders come through court proudly carrying news clips about their indiscretions. Attention, he believed, fueled their fire to act out.

He had progressive ideas and soured over political infighting.

"He had a very open mind," said his son, Bill Patterson Jr. "He wasn't closed to any ideas."

He didn't believe in the death penalty, even though he sentenced some criminals to death. In the 1970s, he championed work-release and mental health programs, halfway houses and drug rehab centers as alternatives to prison.

"When we send a man to prison who is dangerous or a habitual criminal, we want him to stay there and not be released merely to alleviate overcrowding," he wrote in a 1971 newspaper opinion piece. "When we send a man to prison under a shorter sentence, we want assurance that he will return to society as a contributing member.

"We want other choices besides probation or prison."

In the late 1970s, he resigned to enter private law practice.

Again, he got more than he bargained for.

• • •

Mr. Patterson intimidated her a bit.

So tall, so polite, she remembers. So quiet, yet sharply funny and dry. Single after a divorce.

"I never wanted to talk to him because he always scared me," said Barbara Patterson. "He was the most lovable big teddy bear of a guy, but I always talked to his secretary."

For three years, he worked as her divorce attorney. Six months after the divorce was final, they went to lunch together — no longer client and lawyer.

"That was about 31 years ago," said Mrs. Patterson, 69.

During their marriage, they doted on their blended family of six kids. They traveled and entertained friends in their St. Petersburg condo.

She loved his fun side, his wry sense of humor — every Halloween during the 1980s, he donned a pair of jeans and a pig nose.

He loved playing blackjack in casinos, studying military history and cheering for the Cleveland Indians and Florida Gators. He loved working. He didn't want to retire.

But tremors in his hand turned out to be debilitating — for 15 years, he battled Lewy body, a neurological disorder that created symptoms like Parkinson's disease. After falling seven years ago, he was mostly homebound.

"He was such a big guy, and it was a really hard thing for him," said his wife. "But you know, he never complained. He was just the best thing that ever happened to me. It was truly my privilege to take care of him."

Mr. Patterson died Thursday at age 73. He was at home with his family.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

>>Biography

William A. Patterson

Born: Aug. 12, 1934.

Died: July 31, 2008.

Survivors: wife, Barbara; children, Bill Jr. and his wife, Betsy, Jeff and his wife, Paula, Carol Kilpatrick and her husband, Tom; stepchildren, Lee Manuel, Matthew Manuel and his wife, Kara, Kim Bomonti and her husband, Clark; grandchildren, Alex and Ryan Patterson, Stacie and Hayley Patterson, Will, Maddy and TC Kilpatrick, Nicholas Manuel, K.C. Bomonti.

Services: visitation 5-7 p.m. Tuesday and service at 11 a.m. Wednesday, both at David C. Gross Funeral Home, 6366 Central Ave., St. Petersburg.

A courtly lawyer with an open heart, mind 08/02/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 4:31pm]
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