FOR LOVE OF SERVICE, TRADITION
By Dan Jones
For the Observer
Union County Shriners Club member Ralph Patterson feels proud wearing the fez that little red hat with a tassel in parades. He says it gets him more enthused.
He and his wife, Donna, also confirm their reasoning to participate as they visit patients at a Shriners hospital once or twice a year.
"Our main purpose is to help the kids," Ralph said. "You go to a hospital, and that is what reaffirms why you are involved in it. Each time it is like a battery charge you get charged up for another year."
Shriners hospitals, known as "The World's Greatest Philanthropy," have treated more than 700,000 children. Patterson said through the generosity and efforts of others, the hospitals have a combined budget of about $700 million.
The Union couple, married for 48 years, might also be the biggest, and most involved, fans of the East-West Shrine All-Star game. This year, for the 52nd game played, Ralph has been named the first vice chairman and Donna Patterson the queen mother for the princesses.
The prize is seeing the experiences Oregon high school football players have when they are on the field in Baker City and the ones some have at the Shriners Hospital in Portland, where patients try to stand as tall, and healthy, as the players they idolize.
"The patients see the players and they want to be just like them. It helps motivate them," he said.
Ralph said he has even seen players take down addresses to stay in touch with the patients. In his more than 20 years of involvement in the game and the Union County club, Patterson has watched young men become heroes at the all-star game and to the Shriner children.
He remembers how this love for service and tradition began for him. He said it all started out of a genuine care for life, and the game.
"I played in '54 and it impressed me. My brother had polio in about '44 or '45, and he was in the Shrine hospital. I thought it would be a good way of paying the hospital back by joining. Then I got involved in the game," he said.
Unfortunately, the East, his team, lost. But Ralph was hooked.
Patterson, a 44-year resident of the small Oregon town, was team manager for 14 years and team personnel manager for both teams for four years. He said the games have always been immensely popular in Union County, but were played in Pendleton at the Round-Up Park until 1973. One year there was no Shrine football game because the leather varsity jackets issued to players sparked controversy.
"We didn't have a game in '69 because of infractions of NCAA rules. We were giving players too much stuff. We cut down on what we gave, and the game was reinstated," he said.
"If we kept giving out all those jackets, all the funds would have gone," Patterson said while holding up his white-and-red keepsake. He jokingly added he would have to make some alterations to get his to fit now.
Donna, computer savvy and organized, annually wraps herself up in "projects" benefiting Shriners hospitals.
"She does so much," said Ralph.
A former teacher, Donna's patience and tenacity carry over into her personal life ... one that she allows to be filled with charity work. She assists with advertising, and hunts down pictures of players for the all-star game programs by calling, faxing and e-mailing parents. She makes countless inquiries for the teen-agers' lists of accomplishments in and away from sports to put into programs. Donna will call back, and really do "whatever needs to be done," because she knows the athletes are all going to be stars.
"You can quote me every year, and every year I say they are the greatest group of guys we have ever had. Most of them go on to be very successful in life," Donna said.
Years ago, she said, when her husband was a postmaster and there were not strict privacy laws, she sent requests for addresses to the post office and created a database of player names.
Now, she has hundreds of photos and names. Former players, coaches, referees, East-West princesses ... she even spent a year collecting every high school team logo in Oregon.
"There is not enough money to pay us for what we do. It is a labor of love," she said.
The couple has cultivated the Union County Shrine Club by creating two profitable fund-raising methods. Several years back, Ralph began contacting former players asking for modest donations. His wife sent out thousands of letters, and even had her students help her. He said the response was tremendous, and the fruits of he and his wife's labors now total over $100,000. They raised $8,500 this year, all of which goes to helping children at Shriners hospitals.
Three game balls, autographed by all the players, are also rotated in and out of games and later sold in a silent auction.
Donna said she had the idea that the footballs should be valuable, and they have proved to be. The memorabilia has grossed over $6,000, with one selling for over $1,000. Admission to the games, Ralph added, is $10. Usually they pull in several thousand spectators.
Some of Ralph's best memories are encapsulated in his complete set of East-West game programs. He is hesitant to let his oldest copy leave the kitchen table, much less the house.
"I must be the only one in existence who has a complete set. A chairman of the game helped me fill in the rest of the set. They have changed a lot. Now they are a lot bigger," he said.
The first program, from 1954, captures the picture of a young Shriner patient grasping hold of his prized football. The picture was used for several other programs.
"There is lots of history here. Some of the former players still would like to play," said Donna, paging through a program.
Ralph said after several hours of signing casts and playing games with patients before the game, the East-West players usually walk away touched and inspired.
"The visits make them understand why they are playing," he said. "It leaves a lasting impression."