VOL. 123 | NO. 15 | Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Patterson's Self-Effacing Style Only Amplified His Savvy
By Andy Meek
Editor's Note: The following story is a first-person account of a reporter who knew Shelby County Trustee Bob Patterson, who died Friday night at age 69 following a massive heart attack.
Whenever we talked, Bob Patterson almost always said or did something that put a smile on my face.
The people who work in the finance departments of Memphis and Shelby County governments can at times be a little brusque with reporters. But Patterson, the longtime Shelby County Trustee, was something else entirely.
He was in public office as the county's trustee for almost 20 years. He was elected to the office five times starting in 1990, and in that position served as the county's banker and tax collector.
A few years ago, he invited me to his Downtown office. While munching on a handful of peanuts, he took me line by line through the debt situation facing the county at that time. While making small talk after he'd finished, I noticed his trademark felt hat - a homburg, decorated with a feather - sitting off to the side. It was his favorite hat, and he wore it often.
When I acknowledged it, he chuckled, then shuffled over to it slowly. He put it on and paused for a moment, beaming, as if mugging for some unseen camera.
I always found him ready and willing to talk about his work, quick to answer his cell phone - even if he was busy - and most always in good humor. On one occasion a few months ago, I gave him a call while he happened to be on his way back to Memphis.
When I asked if he'd rather talk later, the man who grew up in the Missouri Ozarks assured me he had some time to spare and that he wasn't doing much else at the moment but "sitting here rubbing my bald spot."
I've heard that he was a self-professed technology geek, always fascinated with the latest gadget he could get his hands on. But that apparently had its limits, because one day I needed a photo his office kept on file for a story I was working on. When I asked if he could somehow send it to me digitally, Patterson feigned bewilderment and exclaimed, "Oh, you know I'm just an old hillbilly."
He was, of course, a lot more than that. That fact probably became apparent to the general public in 1990, when Patterson defeated Riley Garner - the last office-holding member of the political machine of "Boss" E.H. Crump - for the trustee's job.
As I got to know Patterson over the last few years, he was always ready with a quip that challenged the conventional wisdom about Shelby County's financial picture. And by the same token, many are the conversations I've had with county officials that began with, "I don't know where Bob is getting his figures, but -" then continuing with a defense of their own.
The last time I talked to Patterson was about a week ago. He offered a prediction about what the county will face next year, an assumption that few county officials appear to have taken note of thus far. Patterson figured that the county's residential tax base will be completely flat after the 2009 countywide reappraisal of property.
If that's true, it will all but tie the hands of local governments, which generate most of their revenue from property taxes, once budget-writing season comes around.
Patterson once flippantly described himself to me as an "old hillbilly." Then, as now, I have to entirely disagree.