The Unexpected Goodbye
Patterson broke the news about his condition a hastily-called press conference in March.
The brash Patterson was about to do two things he’d never done before.
He was going to announce he would not seek another term in office because he’d been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.
And he was going to do it while fighting back tears.
“You know as a guy who has given a number of ‘em, eulogies are the toughest,” Patterson said then. “I learned, self-taught, you never want to look family members or close friends in the eye because that’s when it kicks in. Look at an empty chair, look at a picture on the wall, but don’t catch their eye. And here I’m going from eyeball to eyeball. Sorry.”
Yet even on that day, Patterson’s wit was apparent.
“I’ve loved (being) both prosecutor and County Exec,” he said. “Both great jobs anybody would die for. Oh, I shouldn’t have said that!”
The crowd laughed in response.
They were used to Patterson relying on biting humor and the cutting comment.
But Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard says Patterson was also fiercely protective of those he was elected to watch over.
“The citizens, we have this special relationship. They know who I am, I know who they are. And I think I’ve tried to give them exactly what they want. And I think it shows in the election returns. Working for the right county for the right causes, I’ve been blessed. Really have.” – Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson
He points to Patterson’s time as an Oakland County prosecutor in the late 1970’s.
“Going way back to the Oakland County child killer, when he made a rather bold decision to issue a county-wide search warrant. Frankly it was probably unconstitutional,” Bouchard said. “But in essence it was search every vehicle that was moving in a particular time frame because we thought we might have an opportunity to catch (a child) still alive possibly in the trunk of a car. And he didn’t care about the fallout, he said search every car and I’ll deal with it.”
Bouchard says the move displayed an independence he still admires.
“I’ll miss that fire of absolutely being willing to say or do what he thinks is the right thing based on that moment in time and damn the torpedoes. Sometimes it got him into trouble.”
Some critics charged Patterson’s rhetoric strayed into bigotry.
Though he grew up in Detroit, Patterson opposed using busing to desegregate the city’s schools, said it should be turned into an Indian reservation with a fence around it and, in 2018, refused to join a coalition of CEO’s he saw as favoring Detroit over the interests of Oakland County.
Patterson told reporters, “Oh hell no. I’d rather join the Klan. They are not working for us or with us, they are a direct competitor. That’s the way I see it.”
Patterson later apologized for the remark.
But he often said he had no regrets for battling on behalf of Oakland County.
Patterson did make a failed bid for governor of Michigan in 1982.
He said he knew his prospects were dim when he arrived for a speaking engagement at Traverse City.
“The only hotel or motel in town was the Holiday Inn. Had this big old marquee up front. It said ‘Welcome L. Brick Petersen.’ I told my staff, ‘I think we’ve got a lot of work to do up here.”
Tragedies and Tough Talk
Oakland County Sheriff Bouchard says Patterson also knew his share of tragedy, noting the long-time county exec’s son died in a snowmobile accident in 2007.
“(Think about) his resilience and his fortitude in the face of some of these challenges. The loss of a child has to be among the top of any parent’s nightmare and then being essentially wheel chair-bound from a horrific accident.”
A two-car crash in 2012 injured several people including Patterson.
When investigators got to the scene Patterson was sitting on the roadway bleeding significantly from the head.
His driver, James Cram, was slumped over the center console of the wrecked car, telling police he was unable to move his body.
The accident left Cram paralyzed and changed the county executive’s life forever.
Patterson was far from feeble, however.
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel remembers Patterson challenging Detroit’s then-Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, while the city was in the midst of the largest-ever municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
“He always comes off as (contentious,) I think, at the beginning,” Hackel said. “But remember the Great Lakes Water Authority, ‘No deal is better than a bad deal,’ he kept pushing that. Than eventually there was (one.)”
Hackel smiles now at the thought.
“I was probably more off put by the deal that was struck than he was in the end. He eventually got there sooner than I did. Yet initially you would have thought the opposite was gonna happen because he was adamant this deal wasn’t going to happen.”
Patterson, at the time, was not smiling.
“I’m pretty resentful when, I guess its Orr calling the shots, comes in and says you gotta do this, you got a window of two weeks. Hell, this system’s been dying for ten years! Now all of a sudden we got two weeks to come up with an answer? That’s not gonna happen. We’re not gonna get this deal done in two weeks,” Patterson declared.
Hackel says while he and Patterson often disagreed, he understood the Oakland County Executive’s approach.
“To be quite frank, that county has been run extremely well over decades under his leadership and has been one of the more prominent counties not only in the state but throughout the country. And has been well-recognized (as such.) So he was doing something right,” Hackel said.
It was something that kept Patterson as the head of Oakland County government for more than a quarter-century.
It was, Patterson said in his final news conference, almost enough for two lifetimes.
“I’m lucky enough to have had two beautiful jobs, either one of which would have been a career, but I was able to mesh the two together. And work for a county like Oakland. The citizens, we have this special relationship. They know who I am, I know who they are. And I think I’ve tried to give them exactly what they want. And I think it shows in the election returns. Working for the right county for the right causes, I’ve been blessed. Really have.”
Above all, those who knew him agree Patterson was authentic.
He was who he was.
And perhaps there is no more fitting epitaph than that.