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Weathering the sands of time

Beach Patton taught many things at what was then Hood River High School, in what is now Hood River Middle School, to generations of students he could once see.

He taught chemistry and physics and biology and math. And driver's education.

"That's the one I hear about the most," Patton said. "Driver's education."

A going away party was held Saturday to honor Patton, who taught in Hood River from 1941 until 1971. Patton, 95, suffers from macular degeneration, an eye condition that has rendered him nearly blind. He is moving to an assisted care facility in Enumclaw, Wash., where one of his two daughters lives.

"I'm anxious to get gone now," Patton said. "I'm going to miss it, but I can't handle anything under the roof anymore."

Beach Patton came to Hood River from Portland, where he'd spent much of his youth before heading to Willamette University in Salem for college and eventually to the University of Oregon where he earned a master's degree in physics. After just two years at HRHS, "Uncle Sam said I needed to come help out with the war," said Patton who, in his thirties, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and served as an ambulance driver and medic in Okinawa.

After the war and a year of post-graduate studies at the University of Washington -- "to get back in stride," Patton said -- he returned to Hood River High.

Already a formidable science and math teacher, Patton was asked to attend a driver's education class in Portland in order to become the school's driver's ed instructor. There he learned the American Automobile Association's rules of the road which he passed on to more than two decades of young Hood River Valley drivers.

Many students remember Patton's precise instructions on using the clutch and on parallel parking. One student even dubbed Patton's parking instruction, "Mr Patton's patented parking pattern."

But Patton insists it was the AAA's system for how to park. "They had a system of where you place the car when you stop, how much angle you turn it and so on," he said. "It always worked for me and my students had no trouble with it."

When Patton began teaching driver's ed there were no stoplights in Hood River, so he and his students had to drive along what is now the Historic Columbia River Highway to The Dalles to practice with stoplights there.

"We had to do that after school because it took quite a long while," Patton said. One former student, Bill Seaton who graduated in 1959, recalled Patton stopping along the way to The Dalles to show his driving students old wagon tracks above Rowena.

Patton said the biggest challenge of his teaching years was keeping up with new developments in science and math. "Things were changing all the time," he recalled, adding that he and other teachers often attended continuing education classes around the region.

But as he was trying to keep up with his ever-changing field, Patton was coninually on the look-out for new and challenging ways for his students to learn. According to Hood River High School historian John Lamphiear, who graduated from HRHS in 1964, Patton even capitalized on the local fruit growers to augment his students' learning.

"Mr. Patton got wind that the Apple Grower's Association wanted to test some products for chemical content," Lamphiear recalled. "Mr. Patton said, 'Well, we can do that'." He worked out a mutually beneficial relationship with the AGA where his students would do the experiments and the organization would provide the school's science department with necessary and, of course, brand new equipment.

Beach Patton -- whose full name is Ocean Beach Patton, an attempt by his parents to be different, he says -- still lives in the house on 10th Street that he and his wife bought brand new in 1953. He raised his two daughters there, as well as a son who died at age 9. His wife, Lois, died in 1984.

Patton was diagnosed with macular degeneration in 1991, but it was confined to one eye. He could still drive during daylight and carry on as usual with most activities -- including his penchant for walking. Then one day two years ago, while driving to the Heights on an errand, he began to have problems seeing.

"Items ahead of me -- automobiles, bicycles, pedestrians -- were alternately appearing and disappearing," Patton said. Always quick to think on his feet -- a trait that has diminished little despite his age -- Patton instigated "a sweep system of driving" to help him get home without harming himself or anyone else. "I parked the car, got out and haven't driven since," he said, matter-of-factly.

Within two months Patton's central vision was gone. The Department of Veterans Affairs provided him with an optical magnifier, a device similar to a microfiche machine that magnifies words on a screen. With it, he's been able to read everything from newspapers to household bills -- until recently.

"It's started speeding up here, leaving me in a dimness that's pretty great," Patton said. Recently, trying to read a hospital bill after drawing the living room curtains, Patton spent several minutes moving the bill around on his machine before he finally found the amount due. "$1,006.00," said the words on the screen, magnified so they were several inches high.

"It's time consuming," he said. "I avoid things for a time until I get a second notice." Aside from affecting practical things like paying bills, Patton finds his diminished vision renders him unable to do things he's done all his life -- like clipping his toenails and reading the newspaper. One day last week, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, The Oregonian lay on a coffee table in Patton's living room. But, Patton said, he'd been unable to read even the headlines.

Former students and teachers came from around Hood River and as far away as McMinnville and Yakima, Wash., for Patton's going away party Saturday. Most said they wanted to pay tribute to a man they admired and respected.

"He's a very precise man," said former student Pete Jubitz, who graduated from HRHS in 1959. He recalled Patton's reputation for tending and repairing the clocks at the school, and keeping time at basketball games with his ubiquitous stop watch.

"He still repairs the clocks," Jubitz said. "I don't know what they're going to do now."

Historian Lamphiear concurred. "Can any former student remember any audiovisual thing that happened at HRHS without this man?" he commented in a tribute to Patton.

Though he had a reputation for being a demanding teacher, he also was compassionate. "Mr. Patton's a very humble and gracious guy," said Jubitz, owner of Franz Hardware, chuckling as he realized how he referred to his old teacher. "He's always been Mr. Patton to me, even today.

"People have driven a long way for this," Jubitz added. "It's a great tribute to this man."

Though he couldn't see his former students and fellow teachers, Patton basked in the conversation and warm touches of people Saturday as they took turns sitting next to him and recalling high school days. One entry in the reception's guest book read, "Thank you so much for the classes in driver's ed. My children are able to parallel park, as you once taught me."

Though Patton will be gone -- likely for good -- from Hood River this week, he is long from forgotten by the many students he taught.

"That's been the biggest reward -- finding out how students turned out, how they blossomed," Patton said. "That was the challenge, to give them the best I had so they could use it to be the best they could be."

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