January 30, 2002 - Greensboro News & Record: Sierra Leone RPCV Bill Patterson is National Champion Race Walker at 86

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Sierra Leone: Peace Corps Sierra Leone : The Peace Corps in Sierra Leone: January 30, 2002 - Greensboro News & Record: Sierra Leone RPCV Bill Patterson is National Champion Race Walker at 86

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Sierra Leone RPCV Bill Patterson is National Champion Race Walker at 86

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Jan 30, 2002 - Greensboro News & Record Author(s): Jennifer Atkins Brown Staff Writer

Bill Patterson has always had an adventurous spirit. From attending law school at age 64 to competitively pole vaulting at age 71, he's always been up for a challenge. That's why it didn't come as a surprise to his family that at age 73 he decided to try his hand at competitive race walking.

And it turns out the now-86-year-old found his niche. Patterson holds one national title for the 3K (1.86 miles) race walk and two national championships for the 20K (12.5 mile) race walk in his age group - 85-89 year olds. His record of three hours and one minute for the 20K is unbeaten.

"Considering he's done so many unusual things during his golden years, I'd have to say we were not surprised when he took this up," said Patterson's daughter-in-law, Tracy Patterson.

Following the unbeaten path has been the way Patterson has lived his life, he said. From his choice of jobs over the years to his hobbies and athletic accomplishments, he has never conformed to the norm.

Take, for example, his educational pursuits. Upon returning from service in the Army's 100th Infantry during World War II, Patterson decided it was time to continue his education. He had not been able to afford college after high school, but the GI Bill made it possible for him to pursue his dreams.

With a wife and two young children in tow, the 31-year-old Winston- Salem native headed to UNC-Chapel Hill, where he lettered on the track team, vaulting 11 feet using bamboo or aluminum poles. He also excelled academically, earning Phi Beta Kappa honors and graduating at the age of 35 with a degree in political science.

His career path took twists and turns afterward, a series of adventures that included stints as the manager of a hotel, work for chambers of commerce in North Carolina, Virginia and Alabama and a five-year hiatus to write a novel.

Then at age 60, his life was turned upside down. His beloved wife, Edith, died of lung cancer.

"I decided it was time to make some changes in my life," Patterson said.

A smoker himself, he decided to ease up on smoking and other bad habits and take up running in track meets and marathons.

Other changes followed. After considering entering the seminary, he decided he might like to become a lawyer.

At age 64 he made his way back to Chapel Hill. He and his son, Bill Jr., were accepted into the UNC-CH law school, and in the fall of 1978 both Pattersons enrolled.

Three semesters later Patterson decided law school was not for him.

"I wanted to be Perry Mason, and they weren't teaching that anymore," he said with a laugh.

Instead he joined the Peace Corps and was a community health worker in in Sierra Leone. Then he served as a lay missionary in Honduras for the Moravian Church.

A few years later, after returning to the United States, he received another life-changing shock. His doctor told him he showed early signs of emphysema.

It was time to give up smoking completely. Still a runner, he had continued to pick up his cigarettes after each race.

Patterson laid out a program of mental, physical and spiritual growth, a program that included taking running more seriously.

He began running four to five miles a day and in 1985 won the National Masters Championship for the men's 70-74 age division in the Marine Corps Marathon. He also took up pole vaulting again and in 1987 became a U.S. Master's Track and Field All-American pole vaulter.

When it was discovered he had a mild heart disorder, Patterson was advised to give up running. But Patterson was not ready to prop his feet up in his lounge chair and sulk his way through older adulthood.

He took up karate and race walking.

"He's survived so many health problems, but he always bounces back because he's in such good shape," said Tracy Patterson. "He always has something he's aiming toward."

Patterson continues to push forward. He has been a race walker for the past 11 years, and his collection of medals weighs down the coat rack in the living room of his apartment in the Greensboro Housing Authority's Stoneridge housing community. He proudly displays a jacket covered in championship patches. He travels across the country, about four or five times per year, for various competitions. He has no financial sponsors, so he relies on his credit card to pay for his travel. He also participates in the Senior Games.

"He's so inspiring," said Patterson's protegee, 60-year-old Gayle Sink. "His determination makes him so successful."

Sink became interested in race walking two years ago, and Patterson helps her train.

"He's taught me you can do things like this no matter what your age," she said.

Aspiring to reach age 120, Patterson said he believes his athletic activities are keeping him in shape for as long as he wants to live.

He begins each morning with breakfast followed by an anacrostic puzzle, reading and several games of Scrabble and spider solitaire on his new computer.

"It keeps my mind active and keeps me on my toes," he said.

Recovering from a slight stroke he suffered last summer and a leg and shoulder injury from a fall, Patterson is slowly working to regain his strength. He's given up the more rigorous exercises, such as weight-lifting and sit-ups and has opted for a daily routine of calisthenics and walking in his neighborhood.

"I was trying to be a superman and ended up in the hospital," Patterson said, describing his pre-stroke exercise routine. "I won't be stopped by adversity; I just needed to make some basic changes in my routine."

He also stays busy helping watch his 10-year-old and 13-year-old grandsons each day after school. He still drives a car and travels to their home each day.

"He's such a great example to our kids and us," Tracy Patterson said. "My kids think he's the best."

As the days inch closer for his next competition this summer, the USA Track and Field National Championships, Patterson plans to prepare by walking six days a week (5 kilometers or 3.11 miles Monday through Friday and 10 kilometers or 6.21 miles on Saturday).

"My plans for the future are to become a centenarian race walker," he said.

Contact Jennifer Atkins Brown at 574-5582 or jbrown@news- record.com

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