Utah man’s farewell resonates with readers far and wide
Visitors flocking to see his obituary crash the funeral home’s website.
By brooke adams
| The Salt Lake Tribune
Val "Rocky" Patterson lived life with a whimsical edge. His motto was "anything for a laugh," and he was true to his word to the end.
In a self-penned obit, Patterson shared tales of youthful pranks at a local drive-in and Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, claimed a clerical error led him to receive a doctorate diploma in the mail, and displayed a passion for life that delighted newspaper readers in Salt Lake City and online readers around the globe. Patterson’s obituary proved so popular Tuesday that the onslaught crashed Starks Funeral Parlor’s website.
"Don’t know Val but his story has touched me!" Juan Claudio wrote on the funeral home’s Facebook page. David Jones said: "May we all learn something from Val." And Norma Heger suggested, "Let’s all crack a smile in Val’s honor!"
The interest surprised Mary Jane Patterson, Val’s wife, and would have shocked him, she said.
"Everybody who knew Val just knew that’s how he was," she said Tuesday. "I guess he is getting the last laugh, his 15 minutes of fame. I am not sure he would really like it because we are pretty private people. He wanted a good reaction, but I don’t think he expected this."
Patterson, who was 59, began working on the obit after being diagnosed with throat cancer last fall. He finished it about a month before his death on July 10. He thought most obituaries read like boring résumés and believed leaving the job to survivors just added to their stress.
"He wanted to set a new standard on how obituaries should be written," his wife said.
And, yes, they shared a few laughs as Patterson worked to perfect his parting shot.
"Now that I have gone to my reward, I have confessions and things I should now say," Patterson wrote. There were truths and half-truths and a zinger of a joke or two in what followed.
Patterson and a brother really did get permanently banned from Disneyland, as he wrote in his obit, after jumping off the Peter Pan ride and vandalizing some props. They also drew the ire of a park ranger at Old Faithful when they kicked rocks into the famous geyser.
And this: "As it turns out, I AM the guy who stole the safe from the Motor View Drive Inn back in June 1971."
It really wasn’t a secret. The full story, according to his wife, is that Patterson and his brothers thought the antique safe would look great in their bedroom. Patterson, already a respected mechanic, happened to be working on the county sheriff’s motorcycle at the time. They hitched the motorcycle trailer to Patterson’s ’55 orange convertible Cadillac and used it to haul off the safe.
"The sheriff, of course, found out Val did that," she said. "His only question was, ‘When is my motorcycle going to be fixed?’ "
Everyone knew Patterson was a good kid — playful — but good. The judge gave him an ultimatum: college or jail.
"So guess what? Val went to college," Mary Jane Patterson said. And "he never did anything like that again. He learned his lesson."
Patterson briefly attended the University of Utah before leaving to cut his own way through life; according to the school, he attended two semesters. Patterson decided he didn’t need a degree to tell him who he was or what he could do with his life, believing that any doors that opened should be due to his own proven capabilities.
"He became an auto mechanic, much to his mom’s chagrin," Mary Jane Patterson said.
Of course, it was rather hysterical when, after paying off his student loans, a diploma awarding him a Ph.D. arrived in the mail, Patterson wrote in his obit, a joke likely understood by family and friends. There actually was no errant diploma, though Patterson did subsequently receive mail from the U. now and then addressed to "Dr. Val Patterson, Ph.D."
"In fact, I never did even learn what the letters ‘Ph.D.’ even stood for," wrote Patterson, using the latitude afforded humorists to great effect.
In real life, Patterson was straightforward about his lack of a college degree, acknowledging it likely "cost him a little bit of pay," Mary Jane Patterson said.
But it proved no impediment to his entrepreneurial interests. While working as a mechanic in the late 1970s, Patterson invented a low-profile windmill and sold plans for his design through a Popular Science magazine ad, his wife said. He got interested in personal computers, which were just coming out, and wrote and sold primitive software game programs — such as "Hangman" and "Concentration" — for users of the Commodore PET computer. He later invented programs that allow engineers and court reporters to print multiple pages on a single sheet. He was working as a field service representative for a company that makes automated warehouse systems when he met Mary Jane.
She had just finished her junior year of high school when, with her parents’ approval, they took a trip to Las Vegas and got married. The union lasted 33 years.
"We’d talk about how grateful we were for our marriage and how, if there were a contest for best marriage, we’d enter and felt we would win," she said. "We had a wonderful world."
Patterson put the finishing touches on his obituary about a month before he died, voicing his great love for life and for his wife.
"My regret is that I felt invincible when young and smoked cigarettes when I knew they were bad for me," wrote Patterson, a longtime smoker. "Now, to make it worse, I have robbed my beloved Mary Jane of a decade or more of the two of us growing old together and laughing at all the thousands of simple things that we have come to enjoy and fill our lives with such happy words and moments."
Patterson had symptoms of throat cancer — a persistent sore throat and a nagging earache — for nearly two years before he was diagnosed. When they finally got the word, after seeing a long line of doctors, there was only one response.
"We looked at each other and started busting up laughing," Mary Jane Patterson said. "It just cracked us up."
They knew the odds were against him at that point. He got to work on his obituary; together they reminisced.
In February, Patterson had throat surgery and he was never able to speak again.
"He just typed and wrote," she said. "It didn’t bother him that much. He would write that people were sick of hearing him talk anyway."
And he’d already made sure to say exactly what he hoped to with his last spoken words.
As he was being wheeled into that surgery, Patterson looked at his wife.
"I love you, Mary Jane," he said.