Had Pat been a foot shorter and 100 pounds heavier he would have looked like a Coca-Cola Santa Claus. But Pat was a tall man, closer to seven feet than five, with a thick but neatly trimmed white beard.
Pat knew that his height could be intimidating to those who were smaller—adults and children alike. When addressing either, he would sit or bend his knees, lowering himself to near eye level so that talk between equals could occur.
His given name was Knighton, brother of Uriel Jr., son of Uriel, but he went by Pat: easier to spell, easier to pronounce.
He was a southerner by birth and heart, a big boy from a small town in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, but he was a learned man as well. Pat learned by reading, and he read voraciously. There were books about culture, language, economics, history, science. Western novels where good always prevailed. And there were technical manuals about communications equipment and computer operating systems. Pat devoured them with a fervor reserved for parents trying to finish Goodnight Moon for a sleep-fighting toddler.
If Pat were asked why he picked up a book from a coffee table and started reading, he would simply reply, “Because it was there.”
He was as comfortable in the jungle of a tropical plant nursery as he was in the wired jungle of a telecommunications hub. At the end of his working life he helped transition a newspaper to online content, a 70-something man advising youngsters how to be digital.
I hesitate to call him a Renaissance Man. The word has eleven letters—in the parlance of North Carolina, that’s far too many for three syllables. A one-syllable word like “smart” would suffice. Besides, Pat said, the Renaissance was a time of great art, but no flushing toilets and no toilet paper. How could Western civilization possibly call this a rebirth?
Big boys, especially big boys from the south, eat breakfast. Pat’s favorite place was Waffle House. Eggs, grits, bacon, fried potatoes—staples of a boy and man from rural North Carolina. According to Pat, the best time to visit the local Waffle House was 5 a.m., long after the bar patrons left but a few hours before the day dwellers arrived. By 5 a.m. the cook and wait staff were fully recovered from any 2 a.m. reverie. A sober customer could enjoy breakfast favorites, thank the cook, and engage a waitress in conversation about politics, family, or the price of eggs.
The Waffle House experience was a rite of passage, especially for Yankee transplants, and Pat shared it with our young children. From their time spent at the local Waffle House our now adult children learned about the Southern palate, and life: the value of hard work, patience, resilience.
But enlightenment is rarely attained in one encounter. Instead, it is acquired, if at all, over time, with each opportunity for receiving advice built upon the foundation of previous counsel. Pat and his wife, Millie, shared their wisdom and welcomed us to their extended family. We repaid their kindness in small ways.
When new storm doors were needed for their home, I offered to install them.
Assembly was a struggle. The door just wouldn’t fit the opening. Undeterred, I found a hacksaw and shortened the storm door, enlarged the latch opening, and drilled new mounting holes through the frame. After cursing the manufacturer and its lackluster standards, I was finally able to attach the door.
Success was short-lived. In a chin-rubbing moment, I realized the door didn’t fit because I had inverted it. I had installed the door upside down and backwards; the storm glass panel retaining strips were on the outside versus the inside. In silent embarrassment I apologized to the company and the workers who produced such a fine door. All that was left was fessing up to Pat.
To my surprise, he was ecstatic. He raved about the novelty of the door. He was sure no one in the neighborhood had one like it, and thought that placing the retaining strips on the outside of the storm glass instead of the inside was pure genius: Any burglar could just remove the retaining strips, pull out the storm glass, and enter the home without undue property damage.
Such was Pat’s grace. The $250 storm door didn’t matter. The failed installation didn’t matter. What mattered were dignity and the bond of friendship. My error could have been a big thing, but Pat made it little. The message was simple: Be big in little things. It’s a life lesson I have never forgotten.
Our family’s relationship with Pat and Millie was a gift, unexpected and treasured. This Southern couple opened their home and their hearts to us. We were migrants from Michigan, a state where folks unnecessarily pronounced all letters of a word.
(Years later, I concluded that the truncated patois spoken in North Carolina’s Piedmont region was the consequence of oppressive summer heat and humidity. Speech is oral exertion, requiring the coordinated effort of multiple muscles. If the sentiment of a three-syllable word could be conveyed in two, why add to the burden?)
We had met Pat and Millie through church, an institution that espouses inclusion but is often leery of new people. Pat and Millie reached out and we latched on.
Our family joined Pat and Millie on weekend adventures to cultural landmarks like Dollywood. We became regular visitors to their house for Sunday dinners.There were fish camps with deep fat-fried catfish, fried hush puppies, and any other food that could be served batter-brown and oil-laden. They were surrogate grandparents for our children, and parents to us.
Millie (“Miss Millie,” as Pat called her) was Pat’s rock. They had found one another mid-life. Each brought a treasure trove of experience, respective children, realized and unrealized dreams, pain, joy, success, failure, and aspirations for life to come.
For Millie, the Christian message of hope and redemption wasn’t just doctrinal discourse—it was real. Every person was your neighbor, worthy of acceptance, love, and restoration. Neighbors included wayward adult grandchildren and friends recovering from failure, searching for purpose and redemption.
There was a room for such souls on the third floor of their tri-level house. No reservations were necessary. Those who sought refuge could stay for a week, or maybe a month, as long as they committed to self-improvement and making their bed daily. It was a place for quiet reflection and counsel, a monastic retreat with Pat’s sage advice and eggs to order. From those extended stays marriages were saved, careers rebooted, and, on occasion, unwanted change accepted. The value was immeasurable.
Pat was older than Millie and had his own health problems. He always expected Millie would survive him. Women usually outlive their men, no matter what part of the country they come from. But not this time. In a few short years, Millie was gone. She spent many of her last days at home, surrounded by comfortable people and familiar spaces. Within 10 feet of her sickbed was the house’s second entry—a glass-paneled storm door that had been installed by me, this time correctly. It was a door to second chances and a promise grounded in Millie’s faith, shared with the hopeful and hopeless alike.
A few weeks after Millie’s death, Pat foundered as he climbed the stairs. He was short of breath, and, unbeknownst to him, invaded by cancer. He lived alone for a while, frying eggs for one. Later, he moved in with his daughter, an hour’s drive away.
Pat grieved for the loss of Miss Millie. But survivors live on. Pat kick-started his life. His remaining months were like the bellowing of an idling Harley Sportster, a bike that could fly but was just as impressive rumbling at a stoplight.
There were books to read and friends to make. Pat enjoyed senior meals, where the women outnumbered the men, more widows than widowers. Even a guy with limited time commanded a second look. For his mostly female table companions, Pat was a man who could tell a tale. Old stories for new audiences. And he was comfortable with himself: no walls, no pretense. To his new friends, he was entertaining, refreshingly authentic, even exciting.
Pat completed his life with dignity knowing that he had loved and been loved, that he had helped others navigate the minefields of personal and professional life, and that he had been loyal to those of us who were honored to be called his friends.
We’d moved to Florida by then, and I remember the flight back to the Carolinas for Pat’s funeral, jotting my eulogy remarks on a cocktail napkin on the tray table. Other speakers would capture the boldness of Pat’s life. I intended to talk about the little things that made him big in my eyes.
Thoughts drifted back a decade or so earlier. Our daughter was about 7 at the time. It was an especially bad day. Her scrawled appeal on white paper was simple and heartfelt. “Dear Pat, This is the worst day of my life and I wish at you would take care of it.”
Pat knelt down and hugged her in that moment of despair, eye to eye, cheek to cheek, and heart touching heart. But he also framed the message—mistakes and all—and hung it in a prominent place in their home. It wasn’t displayed to embarrass the petitioner. Rather, it was to remind us that, sometimes, people need us to take care of it—and to take care of them.