Missy Patterson, 1927 – 2010

01/06/2011

Rosalie “Missy” Patterson, a caring mother of 11 who lived with ferocity and purpose, passed away on December 19 at age 83. Missy was a pillar of the community, speaking up for the less fortunate and voicing her opinion with blunt honesty. She worked for 28 years as a receptionist for the Point Reyes Light, where she wrote about gratitude, manners, friendship and family in her column “Ask Missy.” She was an integral part of St. Columba’s Church in Inverness, which she considered a second family. “Mom wove her love and care into the fabric of everybody’s life that she came in touch with,” said her daughter, Anne.

Missy was born on April 1, 1927 in Rockford, Illinois to Col. Bert R.J. “Fish” Hassell and Rosalie Faust Hassell. Fish was a national hero who successfully charted the “Great Circle Route” to Europe, now a common flight path over the North Pole. He earned his nickname after crashing in Lake Michigan in 1915.

The first time Fish tried to fly over the Pole he landed in a nearby cornfield. The second time he crashed into Greenland’s ice cap, where he hiked aimlessly for days. “Despite the snow and the hard crust, we could feel the entirety of the glacier shake and quake. The ice was a living thing, moving and treacherous,” he later wrote. “I think my first doubts about our survival crept in when I felt the ice tremors. We knew then we were in a fight for our lives.” He was later found by
Inuits.

Rosalie came from a wealthy family that owned the Mechanics Machine Company, Rockford Screw Products Company, the American Cabinet Hardware Corporation and the Faust Hotel—at one point the largest American hotel outside of New York.

Missy was the middle child of five. When she was born, her oldest brother, John, had trouble pronouncing the name “Rosalie,” and settled on “Missy” instead. Missy hated her formal name, and would later hang up on anyone who called asking for “Rosalie.” She had an idyllic childhood in Rockford, except for the time she contracted sleeping sickness at age seven.

Missy was an intelligent and audacious girl who made friends easily. “She was bold. She wasn’t shy, even then,” said Dick Rundquist, Missy’s childhood friend and neighbor. “She enjoyed life and had a lot of friends in the neighborhood.” Missy and her companions liked to hold large slumber parties at the Hassell home, where her mother—who was partially deaf—would fall asleep early in the evening.

The family’s Great Dane was the children’s companion and protector. “Rex helped mind the children. When they ran off, Rex would go and get them,” said Missy’s daughter, Riki. Once, when Missy’s younger brother, Peter, was stuck in a tree, Rex grabbed the child by the seat of his pants and put him gently on the ground. “That dog would bark like hell,” Dick said.

Even the Hassell and Faust fortunes were touched by the Great Depression. Though they always had plenty to eat, the family lost the large house Missy grew up in; Fish then discovered a new food additive and raised enough money to found a fudgecicle company. He soon bought back the house, and Missy would enjoy trips with her father to the company, where she would eat a fudgecicle.

Missy attended East High School, where she was a member of the French club and student council, wrote for the school newspaper and played violin in the orchestra. She wanted to be a foreign diplomat and raise Great Danes when she was an adult. Missy was rarely seen without a kerchief around her head, restraining the blond curls she put in each night.

She liked going to movies or basketball games with young ROTC officers, but made sure they didn’t get too fresh. After a big group date, Missy and her friends would pile into the back of a convertible to go to Brad Lynn’s sandwich shop for hot chocolate.

Fish re-enlisted to train fighter pilots during the war, and Missy’s older brother enlisted too. Her younger brother, Peter, enlisted in the Air Force, where he trained to be a test pilot. Missy was devastated when Peter’s plane went down in Arizona, killing him instantly.

After graduating—as senior class vice-president—Missy moved to Wisconsin to attend Beloit College to study journalism. She was a staff writer for The Round Table student newspaper and a member of the international relations club. She was accepted into the Delta Gamma sorority, where her upbeat and magnetic personality attracted many friends. “She had a lot of very dear sorority sisters. They cared about her, and she cared about them,” said her ex-husband, Donald “Pat” Patterson.

Missy met Pat, a young man who had served in Europe during the war, during a Delta Gamma dance in 1948. “We got along famously, so we dated that whole year,” Pat said. Pat graduated that year and they were married in June. Fish returned from Greenland and Iceland, where he was setting up the Distant Early Warning Line—a series of small airports meant to detect possible Soviet attacks.

The intimate wedding was held in the drawing room of the Hassell home in Rockford. Missy wore an ivory satin wedding gown with a high neckline and low, draping sleeves, and a crown of orange blossoms, sweet peas and white rosebuds.

The newlyweds enjoyed a thrifty honeymoon in Chicago, and spent the rest of the summer at the Hassell home while Pat, a chemical engineer, looked for work. After three months of unsuccessful job hunting, Pat mailed a fellow soldier in California, asking for a job. He took a train to the West Coast and landed a job at LA Chemical and Dye Company in Pittsburg.

The job came with the use of a home, which was fortunate, as Missy was pregnant with her first daughter. Not long after, Pat got a better paying job at Stofford Chemical Company in Hayward. He applied for a home loan under the GI Bill and bought a house.

Hayward was a very young community, but Missy made friends easily. “Everyone was brand new. No one knew anyone else,” Pat said. “She was great at making friends, being a hostess. She made friends like crazy.”

Missy was having children at an astonishing rate—four in seven years—and decided that it would be better to raise her family in the country. She and Pat found a 4,500-square-foot, three-story house in Inverness, and there had seven more children. “It was an organized circus,” said Missy’s daughter, Tami. “There were three different groups in that house—Riki, Todd, me and Kraig were the oldest group, then Kirk, Anne and Skye in the middle, and the Four Mice—Scott, Shawn, Alicia and Duncan.”

Neighbors often commented that Missy had a will of steel and the patience of Job. She neither imposed draconian order, nor let her children run wild. She kept a regiment of chores and schedules, while letting the kids be kids. There was a list of who was supposed to wash dishes, do the laundry, sweep floors and chop firewood. Every night Missy baked loaves of bread and sheets of cookies and in the morning made the loaves into sandwiches to wrap in wax paper and put in lunches. Younger children knew to stay in their rooms until older children left for school to avoid chaos.

Missy made nearly all of the clothes for her children, and coached the 4-H sewing group. “There were tiny shirts and pants all over the place. And diapers everywhere,” Tami said. “The worst part was going to the bathroom and pulling a diaper out of the toilet,” Kraig added.

Someone was nominated to be fingernail inspector each evening before dinner. “If you didn’t have clean fingernails, kiss your dinner goodbye,” Skye said. Missy drilled basic courtesy into the children, and failure to say “please” at the appropriate time could also cost them dinner. “And it worked, even with people I’m angry with I say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”

Rather than dole out spankings, Missy disciplined by temporarily depriving her children of something they cared about. “I remember crossing her,” Tami said. “I swore. Once. The punishment was that I couldn’t have Skye in my presence.” Having her younger sister around was Tami’s greatest pride. “She was going to corrupt me,” Skye added. “She knew how to mete out punishment in a way that mattered.” Children knew they had done wrong when she put her hands on her hips and prefaced her sentence with “Listen, Buster…”

Missy always knew when the children had been misbehaving, often before they returned home. “Vladimir [of Vladimir’s Czech Restaurant] was the great tattler. He always knew everything and told Mom,” Tami said. The kids would pay Vladimir back for his treachery with thrown eggs and tomatoes.

Missy had a wonderful ability to forgive, but that never stopped her from giving a dressing-down to anyone who deserved it. “Once, one of the neighbor kids at a vacation house next door untied our boat and let it float out into the bay,” Todd recalled. “So Mom got in this plywood kayak and set out to get our boat. She got about two feet before the thing tipped over. She came up sputtering, dumped water out of her boots, hauled off to the neighbor and gave them a piece of her mind.” After several weak protestations of innocence, the neighbors apologized. They became Missy’s fast friends.

Once, during the mid-60s, Pat decided that the family should move to Windsor for financial purposes. The late Anne Asman decided to throw the Pattersons a going-away party, and most of the community showed up. “Missy looked around and said ‘I never knew we had so many friends! Well, we’re not moving.’ And so they stayed,” said Missy’s friend Cecil Asman.

Missy owned a series of dogs, several of which attained legendary status. Banner, the German shepherd, was an accomplished guard dog. “I used to tell people, don’t run and Banner won’t chase you down,” Kraig said. Dooger was a Jack Russell terrier that would sneak into the school to steal children’s lunches. He would drop a bagged lunch over the fence to fellow dogs Princess and Gus, who were waiting below, and return several more times for more lunches.

“I remember Mom screaming, ‘No more dogs! I’ve had it!’” Kraig said, remembering a time when angry mothers had knocked on the door to inquire about missing lunches. Dooger was cowering in the third-floor closet. The children later brought home two kittens, Charles and Virginia.

Missy also took in human strays, either family friends or hitchhikers Pat brought home for a hot meal. “Whether it was a meal, a kind word or an open door, she put love into action,” Tami said. Guests were invited to stay for longer periods of time, like Pat’s father or friends of the children.

Politics were a strictly forbidden topic at home. Missy kept her political beliefs to herself; she later confided to her son Kirk that she was a Republican until Ronald Regan was elected, at which point she became a Democrat.

She was always a devout member of the Church, but became more involved when her children’s irreverent messing about during religious relief—a sort of mid-week Sunday school—made Father Reid cry. Missy stuck around during classes thereafter. “We couldn’t screw around at all after that,” Kraig said.

Missy took a practical approach to religion. She didn’t impose her religious beliefs on others, but when God was brought up she could shock people with the fierceness of her devotion. “I remember once, she saw me sobbing,” said Bishop John David Schofield. “She didn’t even know what it was about. But she slammed her tray down and shouted, ‘Never apologize or feel bad for what God does!’ and then walked out.”

Missy’s faith kept her going when her youngest son, Duncan, died in a car accident at age 15. He was riding in the passenger seat, and when the car careened into a creek, he was swept away. “Alicia was crushed, Shawn and Scott were in a state of shock. But Missy, she didn’t go into seclusion or break into pieces,” said Duncan’s best friend Rolf. Missy’s ashes were laid to rest next to Duncan’s grave.

When the rains flooded Inverness in 1982, Missy leapt into action, organizing, cooking and sheltering refugees. Missy gathered up children whose parents had been stranded at work, and gave them warm food and a dry place to sleep. She organized volunteers and coordinated with the fire department and emergency responders that couldn’t reach the flooded neighborhood. “The Red Cross arrived on the third or fourth day and was nonplused at the liberties taken by us,” said Missy’s friend Marj Stone. “Missy told them we were doing what could be done with what we had, and if they did not like it they were free to go.”

Missy was a loving grandmother, giving her grandchildren the individual attention that was impossible to afford her children. “I loved Grandma Missy’s ability to make you feel like the only person in the room,” said her granddaughter Sarah. “I always felt important and loved by her, not just like ‘one of the kids.’”

Missy was a devoted member of the Lion’s Club, doing good around the community. Most recently, she was invested in building a teen center in the old gym at West Marin School.

After separating from Pat in 1979, Missy started working for the Pacific Sun, taking photos and writing articles about life in West Marin. She quit soon after to take a short-lived job at Anne Dick’s jewelry shop in Point Reyes Station. There she made jewelry, sent orders and organized finances. She did not find this work satisfying, and got a job directly next door at the Point Reyes Light.

“We all know she loved the Light, being part of the paper,” Skye said. “She instructed us to never call on Thursdays, when the paper went out. You’d better not call unless someone’s dead or dying.” Missy was an integral part of the Light, working circulation and as front-office manager. She began a column in 2008 called “Ask Missy,” in which she would write about whatever was on her mind, which could range from the importance of family to her irritation with inconsiderate bicyclists.

Missy worked at the Light for 28 years, through four different owners. Three days before she died, Missy wrote a final column about being hospitalized with pneumonia. She was going shoe shopping at the Cabaline, but her friend Elizabeth insisted they instead drive to West Marin Medical Center, where Dr. Whitt told her go to the emergency room. She had received excellent care by “this nice, handsome young doctor.”

Weeks later, after being briefly released and then returned to the hospital, Missy asked that her family join her at her bedside. “Up until the very end, she was singing carols and hymns with us, making us laugh,” Anne said. “She set the bar so high, it will be hard for any of us to die now.”

Missy tried to hold on until the last member of her family, Riki, was at hand, but eventually said that she couldn’t wait any more, closed her eyes and passed away. Before she went, Missy told her family that it had been the best day of her life.

 

Missy is survived by her sons Todd, Kraig, Kirk, Scott and Shawn; daughters Erika, Tamara, Anne, Skye and Alicia; grandchildren Robert, Ross, Zak, Chad, Christopher, Duncan, Nikolas, Laura, Amy, Zoe, Kate, Megan Colunga, Sarah, Bettina, Emily, Natasha and Addi; and great-grandchildren Taylor, Bobby, Jaimee, Taylor and Sofia; and many, many friends and admirers. All donations can be made to St. Columba’s Church in Inverness, California.

 

Writer’s note: Every day I stood in awe of Missy. I miss her dearly, and wish that I had asked her for more advice than I did, and brought her fresh flowers more often. To Missy’s family and friends—Anne Patterson in particular—thank you for being so generous with your time and information. I’m sorry I had to leave out so much.