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A look back: Jerry Patterson feature, 2005

November 12, 2012
By ERIC PRATT - Sports Editor ( , Messenger News

There are places on earth where the shadows never change.

Walking to my car after the Patterson Field Tournament earlier this week, I looked down and recognized the figure of myself as a 13-year-old teener league baseball player, watching over me and following me back to the real world.

The atmosphere at Jerry Patterson's ballpark tends to have that affect on people. It reminds us of the past, makes us thankful in the present, and promises so much for the future.

Some call Patterson Field the area's best-kept secret. Others identify it as a Fort Dodge cornerstone, as critical to the pulse of the community as any landmark around. And whether you've visited Jerry one time or a thousand, his spirit always seems to guide you home.

His creation officially turned 37 years old Wednesday.

''We had a cake and ice cream ready to celebrate, but the threat of rain made us think otherwise,'' he laughed.

The sense of humor and quick wit have never left Patterson - especially in the eight-plus years after being diagnosed with an extremely rare abdominal cancer called pseudomyxoma peritonei. He's identified this complicated stretch in his life as a ''real blessing in a lot of ways.''

''Thanks to a positive attitude and strong faith, I've been able to bounce back,'' said Patterson, who is now 67 years old. ''My enthusiasm is still there. And in spite of the health problems, it's been a very good eight or nine years for me. I'm not the tiger I used to be, but I'm hanging in there.''

Patterson paused.

''Without my family, friends and this ballpark, I wouldn't have made it.''

He's still at the field every morning, working on concessions and organizing events for the evening that he playfully labels the ''dog and pony show.'' After an early afternoon break, Patterson typically returns before 5 p.m. and stays until dark.

''I usually take weekends off (during the Teener League season), but from mid-July to early-August (with supplemented youth tournaments and invitationals), it can be a seven-day-a-week gig,'' Patterson said.

Retired UPS worker Art Johnson flanks Patterson and handles a lot of the upkeep. ''He's a phenomenal worker,'' Patterson said. ''Just a gift from the Lord.''

Keith Hillman and Mike Schuh also help, along with a handful of other volunteers.

In the early fall months of 1967, Patterson purchased four acres of land on the southeast side of Fort Dodge and began construction on his own field of dreams.

''I wanted to build a public ballpark for the community to use,'' Patterson said. ''We'd been through and lost a lot of fields in Fort Dodge; I figured this was a good way to start up and keep a permanent location for the area.

''I looked around - I considered the area that is now Ed Barbour Field (north of Iowa Central) and land by the Badger Blacktop, but this spot just caught my attention.

''I bought four acres from Joe Rejsek initially; there are 12.5 acres there now. I gave Joe $100 a month for the next 21 years to pay it off.''

By June 1st of 1968, Patterson had a ''very crude field'' for his summer collegiate baseball team to use. A Fort Dodge gem had been born.

This is the 51st consecutive season that Patterson has devoted himself to youth baseball. The 1956 Fort Dodge graduate coached the Fort Dodge Demons - a team of 13-15 year olds - for six seasons before guiding a traveling collegiate squad from 1966 through '77. Patterson Field was their home turf.

''We had guys from all over - New York, California, Texas, Minnesota,'' Patterson said. ''Twenty of my former players made it professionally; two were in the majors, (ex-Kansas City Royal) Dennis Leonard and (current San Francisco third base coach) Gene Glynn.''

Former Major League all-stars Ozzie Smith, Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield, along with Pocahontas native Larry Biitner, Steve Macko and Duane Josephson, spent some of their early playing days at Patterson Field as well.

Patterson said that after 11 years, running the collegiate program ''got to be too much. It was a drain on me physically and financially. I loved doing it, but I had to give it up.'' He turned his attention to directing the YMCA youth baseball program - a position he held until a fateful November day in 1996.

The mysterious and elusive form of cancer - which ''manifests itself in the abdominal cavity, grows very slowly'' and yields almost no warning signs - was removed during a 12-hour procedure Patterson called ''the mother of all operations'' in Rochester, Minn. Doctors warned that most people don't survive this type of cancer for longer than five years; the odds of obtaining such an illness in the first place are more remote than winning the Powerball lottery.

Patterson has withstood the rigors of two major operations.

''I'm feeling good,'' Patterson said. ''My only real problem is weight. It's a constant battle to keep it on. Every time I get going and build my weight back up, something happens and I lose it all. That, and my strength kind of ebbs and flows. The operations are very difficult to go through.''

The motivation and passion provided by the ballpark helped heal the scars and bring Patterson back to his true calling.

''I enjoy doing this, and if I can entertain people too, that's my windfall profit,'' Patterson said. ''I have a hobby that benefits the community - I get a lot of nice feedback from everyone, which really makes me feel good. The ballpark's been there for me through a lot of ups and downs. So has everyone else.''

Patterson appreciates the financial backing of area businesses and fans across the state - and even the country.

''The bulk of my support comes from our mail campaign, which is once a year,'' Patterson said. ''I don't have to put much of my money into the ballpark anymore, which is nice and different than it used to be. The community has been there for me in so many ways - it's just an ideal arrangement.''

No team has ever paid a dime to rent or use the field. All of the operations are funded by donations and advertising revenue.

Patterson also pointed to billboard sponsors, the recently-resurrected St. Edmond Tournament, season-ending invitationals and the recent help of companies like Kolacia Construction and Jensen Builders as other factors behind the ballpark's constant forward progress.

Patterson has always tried to adjust and make the facility ''as user-friendly as possible.''

''I want people to drive up in their cars and be within a few feet of the action,'' Patterson said. ''Keeping things intimate and the fans entertained is important; you've got to treat them right.''

As things change, though, the philosophies and purpose behind Patterson Field stay the same.

''The field is there to provide young players a safe and well-maintained place to develop their skill - and enjoy themselves in doing so,'' Patterson said. ''I have people from out of town and even Fort Dodgers, to this day, tell me they didn't know much about the ballpark before they came.

''I hope everyone walks away feeling satisfied, like they've had a unique baseball experience.''

Thousands do, thanks to this unique baseball man.



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