James Patterson made a good life here in Butte, saving the lives of others, and now, at 94, he has ensured that St. James Healthcare will be able to keep doing just that.
The hospital announced late last week that Patterson, an internist who came to Butte in 1957 and retired in 1984, has made a "generous donation" to the St. James Healthcare Foundation.
"This significant investment is extremely important to our hospital as well as our community," said Jay Doyle, president of St. James Healthcare, on Friday. "It gives us a way to provide reliable resources for generations to come."
Patterson said Friday that he and Meryl Patterson, his wife of some 65 years until her death in 2013, very much wanted to share their good fortune with the town that they loved.
"The Lord has been good to us," Patterson said. "Meryl and I both had a commitment to doing what the good Lord told us to do. The Lord said 'share,' and that's what we did. This donation is part of that."
Jim Patterson grew up in Oklahoma, the son of a doctor who made house calls in a horse and buggy. "I think he had the second automobile in the county," Patterson remembers. "He said, 'I ought to get rid of it. I spend as much time under it as I do in it. And (unlike his horse), it won't take me home when I fall asleep.'"
James Patterson graduated from Duncan High School, class of '41, and was in college at The University of Oklahoma when Pearl Harbor happened.
"I tried to sign up like all my friends did, but the Army said, 'No, you're in pre-med, and we need doctors,'" he said.
So he went on to medical school, where he met Meryl, a medical social worker, during his residency. Patterson admits it took him a while to get up the nerve to ask her out, but a whirlwind courtship led to an enduring marriage.
He practiced with his dad for a little while but still felt the need to serve his country. He signed up to be an Army doctor, and he and his new wife were sent to Japan.
Shortly thereafter, the Korean War broke out, and he left Meryl and reported for duty in Korea, where he treated soldiers wounded in combat. "We didn't have anything," he remembers. "We didn't have ambulances. Casualties would often arrive by freight train at midnight."
After their return, the couple settled in San Diego, Meryl's hometown, and Patterson opened a practice as a rheumatologist, which was an emerging field then. But he grew a little frustrated that there wasn't more he could do for a lot of his patients and decided he really wanted to be more of a general practice physician. Horse and buggy days were gone, but he knew the need for the kind of medical care his father had provided was as strong as ever.
He found out about openings at a clinic in Butte and a hospital in Rapid City, South Dakota, and the Pattersons looked at both. It was August, and Butte was green and pleasant. He and Meryl decided that it was the place to make their lives.
He was paid $800 a month to start at the Murray Clinic, at that time on Granite Street just west of Main Street.
"The doctors in town then were all very close. They got along great," he remembered. "They were fishing and hunting partners, and they were all pretty busy and happy."
"There were three hospitals when we came to Butte — the old St. James, the county hospital, and the new hospital, which was the community hospital," Patterson said. "We made rounds twice a day in all three, and yes, I made house calls."
Patterson became especially interested and concerned about silicosis, then a newly recognized condition. "I treated patients for it, but I didn't know anything about it."
Patterson went to Detroit, where some auto workers had been found to be suffering from silicosis because cars were then sand-blasted before they were painted. There, he took advanced training in the treatment of the disease.
"It helped me understand what the older miners were dealing with," he said.
Patterson has always given nurses recognition for the enormous role they play. "They're the ones who really deliver patient care," he said. "I depended on nurses to carry out what I ordered."
He added, "My nurse wouldn't let me leave the office until I had personally returned every phone call. To her — and to me — that was the difference between being a doctor and being a physician. A physician treats the patient as well as the disease."
During his career, Patterson and Meryl set up a charitable trust as part of their investment portfolio and watched it grow over the years.
Now, his gift to the St. James Healthcare Foundation from that trust has created an endowment that can expand over time.
The foundation's Greatest Needs Endowment is designed to help the hospital fulfill its mission and enhance the quality of patient care and safety. It can provide a special piece of equipment, a new program, new educational materials, and the like. Requests for funds from the endowment will be reviewed and approved by the St. James Foundation board of directors and hospital leadership after ensuring that they meet the intentions of the donors.
"The impact of the endowment will grow...because it can accept additional gifts from any interested community donors," Doyle said. "We are honored and humbled" by Patterson's generosity, he added. "We extend our appreciation to him not only for this donation but for all that he has done to serve individuals and families throughout Butte for more than 60 years."
At St. James's 2018 Spirit Gala at the Montana Tech HPER Saturday, Patterson was presented with the annual Rita McGrath Award, which spotlights an extraordinary individual, family, group, or business that has displayed a commitment to St. James Healthcare and to the community.
McGrath, the award's namesake, was a teacher for 44 years at Butte High. She died in 2004 at age 100. She provided many schools and nonprofits with significant estate gifts, supporting programs that continue to benefit the community today.
Patterson takes a daily walk and still quietly enjoys the home he shared with Meryl.
"It's such a good town," he said Friday. "People here are just wonderful."
It's clear that he's one of those who make the statement accurate.