Cobourg loses stellar citizen

By Cecilia Nasmith

Remarks on the passing of philanthropist Bill Patchett speak of a void left in the community as well as a rich and enduring legacy.

The man who moved to Cobourg in the mid-1980s and embraced his new home town with profound devotion died Friday, but his contributions will long be remembered.

A fellow Rotarian for almost a quarter-century, Lynda Kay offered her remarks by phone from a District 7070 assembly where a video Patchett made only three weeks ago was being screened, sharing his thoughts on the importance of encouraging Rotary Foundation donors.

Cobourg Mayor John Henderson had seen Patchett only a week earlier at the Northumberland Community Counselling Centre's first major fund-raiser, a sold-out dinner at Dalewood Golf Club.

“Of course, there was Bill coming out of the hospital doing what Bill does best, asking those who could commit their time, resources, money, or all three, to step up and help those less fortunate than themselves,” Henderson recounted.

“What struck my heart is, I knew an hour from that he was going right back into the hospital,” he added, recalling his suspicions that at least one or more of the people accompanying him were medical care givers.

“I complimented him on his beautiful jacket and blue tie. I watched him at the microphone speaking with passion. His message to all was, 'Glad you are here, glad you are helping those who need our support. If you can step up, why are you not doing that for the benefit of others? If you can reach into your pocket, you are expected to reach into your pocket and you are expected to give.'”

Patchett moved to Cobourg when he purchased the old Dominion at 500 Division St. and turned it into Bill's Your Independent Grocer, as well as running the old downtown Loblaw's that is no longer standing. He hadn't been in the community all that long before joining the Rotary Club of Cobourg.

And the decade was not out when Dressler House – the birthplace of beloved Oscar-winning actress Marie Dressler - burned down in early 1989, and he raised his voice on behalf of rebuilding and preserving it.

This may have been one of his earliest major fundraisers in his new home community, Kay posited.

“He really fought for that to be preserved, and he was willing to put his money on the table to make sure these things happened.”

Patchett worked quietly behind the scenes for the preservation, while his wife Delphine became a key figure in the newly formed Marie Dressler Foundation that would turn it into a wonderful heritage asset.

It would be the first of so many projects he would support over the years, especially after his retirement gave him more time for such pursuits.

“He never hesitated to ask anyone for money,” Kay allowed.

“He really believed in the causes that he was fundraising for, and he wanted those campaigns to be successful. And he went to the nth degree to make sure that happened.”

During her quarter-century as Northumberland United Way executive director, Kay saw firsthand how Patchett lived his values during several stints as the campaign's fundraising chair, doing his part to ensure that important programs and services for the individuals and families of this community would be there when they were needed most.

Patchett chaired the campaigns for 1998, 1999 and 2009 that, combined, raised more than $2-million.

Following the 1999 campaign, he left to join forces with the late Bob MacCoubrey to spearhead fundraising for the new hospital – at a time, Kay pointed out, when he was president of the Rotary Club of Cobourg.

“I think about the fact that he was willing to come back as the campaign chair after the recession in 2008, and it was a record-breaking campaign that year – over $900,000,” she said.

“Certainly individuals and industries were feeling challenged, but he was still able to really bang the drums and get out there and help us raise over $900,000.

“He knew the situations and changes to individuals' and families' lives and how the United Way funded services in the community. He wanted to make sure they had those services and supports that they needed. He understood.”

Patchett displayed a wonderful knack for making each campaign an enjoyable time for the volunteers as well as for himself. For example, the year Paul Caldwell, Bill Moebus and Jim Edwards canoed across Lake Ontario as a United Way fundraiser, he was delighted to be among the crew on Jody Pepper's sailboat who followed and kept an eye on them.

He also began a wonderful Northumberland United Way tradition, when he worked with Best Western Cobourg Inn and Convention Centre owner Brad Willcocks to establish the annual United Way campaign wrap-up breakfast that has become a much-anticipated late-winter tradition.

“He always was a gentleman, and always provided encouragement to you. Through my years with United Way, and even as I retired and worked on the hospice campaign, he always wanted to know what was happening,” Kay said.

“He was kind enough to hire my daughter Elizabeth to work in the garden centre for him one summer. It was a great experience for her, and she always reflected very happily on that summer. She knew she had to work hard, but it was really a good experience, and I always appreciated that.”

“He worked hard and raised an incredible amount of money for United Way - which helped up the standard that people who followed him had to reach,” former mayor and fellow Rotarian Peter Delanty said.

“By doing that, of course, that became the new standard.”

Though Patchett was well known as a clever and shrewd businessman, Delanty said, “I often thought what he really loved was the flowers. In the spring, he set up a garden centre at the back of his store and filled it with geraniums and every other kind of annual you could think of.

“He was just in his element. The water would be running through the fountains, and I never saw him more relaxed as a business person than he was out there.”

In recent years, Patchett was usually the face behind carts of potted plants that he would set up at his daughter Wendy's bookstore (The Avid Reader) or in the hospital lobby on such occasions as Mother's Day, Easter and Christmastime – providing an easy gift opportunity for purchasers and support for the hospital or Polio Plus from the proceeds.

“Many of the fundraising efforts revolved around flowers – he just loved working in that element,” Delanty said.

“Even when they had the first Waterfront Festival, his big contribution was putting floral displays and plants at the entrances. He did it because he loved that and knew how to arrange things.”

Patchett also had a knack for making the big splash to draw attention to a cause, like hanging big banners from a telephone pole on behalf of a United Way campaign.

“He always liked to make an impression - he was very good at that,” Kay agreed.

His persistence in soliciting individual donations was the subject of much good humour among the targets he hit up, Delanty reported. One tactic was an offer to treat someone to lunch. You'd know something was up, he said, and you'd wait throughout the meal for the other shoe to drop and the pitch to be made.

“And you would have a smile on your face when you gave him the cheque,” Delanty declared.

“He always believed, if you didn't ask, you won't get. When he believed in a cause, he would go the extra hundred miles to try and make sure that, if it was needed, the money would be raised somehow or other.

“Whether it was something local, like the hospital, or something international, like Polio Plus – if he really believed in it, he put his heart and soul in it to make it go. I saw it many, many, many times.

“He was very kind that way, and his heart went out for causes that would make people's lives better.”

Delanty recalled how Patchett liked to cruise the neighbourhood in his motorized cart, and stop to admire the gardens people were putting in – taking the time to be supportive in some small way, to stop and offer a compliment.

Patchett even had a political side as a dyed-in-the-wool Liberal, Delanty added, and he remained very engaged in local politics - a natural outlet, given his love for the town.

He was an active figure in the Downtown Vitalization campaign but, years before that, provided the example himself by pooling funds with Dr. Thomas Hawke to completely redo the former Allen's Hardware building on King Street. Along with ground floor renovations, he installed second- and third-floor lofts and commissioned a mural on the building's east side honouring the car ferries that connected Cobourg with Rochester, NY, for almost half a century.

Delanty was also impressed with the time and money Patchett invested in restoring the Introibo Ad Altare Dei statue from chronic vandalism and installing it outside the building, where it now is a mecca for art lovers and selfie snappers.

“He had that kind of creative mind and a way of making things work that made people want to come down to that part of downtown,” he stated.

“He became a true lover of Cobourg. It was his town, and he wanted to make it a better place.

“No one can say someone is irreplaceable, but he comes close.”

“He most certainly lived a life that shows why it is important for us who can, in our own way, to give back to our community,” Henderson said.

“He made an impact, not just in Cobourg but in Ontario and in International Rotary out of Chicago, where he has an international reputation that people may not realize.”

Reflecting on the Rotary assembly she was attending, Kay recalled that Patchett was a past district governor, as well as a huge champion (and past chair) of the District Rotary Foundation.

“He raised millions and millions of dollars to support eradicating polio. He used to travel around with a trailer that had an iron lung to illustrate what that meant,” she said.

“It's a great loss to the Town of Cobourg, a great loss to Polio Plus, which he was very dedicated to, and to many people he kindly helped out.” Delanty said.

Henderson agreed that Patchett was a very proud Rotarian.

“We have a motto, Service Above Self. So when I think of Bill, he lived by that motto,” he said.

In sheer magnitude, the largest project Patchett undertook – in conjunction with the late Bob MacCoubrey – was raising the millions of dollars needed for a new hospital for the West Northumberland community.

But it was right in that hospital only two years ago that he focused on the needs of one local family, when he heard about a young Colborne man suffering from the same life-threatening health problems he was experiencing himself. Patchett assembled a big press conference to announce the Help Nathan Live campaign that would raise money to provide that life-saving treatment for young Nathan Kelly that his parents could not otherwise afford.

That campaign was a success, and so was the one where Patchett and MacCoubrey joined forces to raise $15.6-million for the Northumberland Hills Hospital - “at a time when there was absolutely no history of any initiative within our county of that significance,” Northumberland Hills Hospital Foundation executive director Rhonda Cunningham pointed out.

“We were all sort of in an an area where we didn't know a whole lot because there was no template. Bill stepped up to lead that effort, and I actually think Northumberland Hills Hospital could be looked on as one of his greatest legacies to this county.

“He stepped up to make sure it got built and to make sure it continued to thrive,” Cunningham added.

Once the Caring For Generations campaign (as Patchett and MacCoubrey called it) successfully raised the funds to build the hospital, Patchett was instrumental in establishing the Caring For Generations Society to ensure the best care closest to home continued to be available.

“One of the things that strikes me about Bill, and that I will always remember about him, is that he always had to be moving forward. He was never one for the status quo. Even a week ago, he was talking to me about coming to a meeting to help raise money for the foundation. It was awe-inspiring, the fact that he never once stopped to feel sorry for himself,” Cunningham said.

Henderson paid tribute to Delphine Patchett, and the unwavering support she and their family always provided.

“Dephine is like a rock. She's always been there for Bill, and obviously Bill has always been there for her. They form a great team, but I am convinced, without Delphine's love and support, Bill couldn't have done half of what he did. She knew Bill's character and allowed him to come forward yet, behind the scenes, she was the foundation. Delphine was his rock, right to the last moment.”

“Delphine was in and out of our office frequently over the last few weeks, and would always say thank you for our help,” Cunningham recalled.

“I said it's a privilege and an honour to have been there for the Patchett family when they needed support at a very difficult time.”

Henderson gave Patchett his highest praise when he called him “one of our stellar Cobourg citizens. Certainly, over a 30-year period, he put his heart and soul into everything that was Cobourg.

“I've lived here 34 years, and I would say every 10 to 15 years we as citizens of Cobourg had the privilege of being led by someone in our community who really makes a difference.”

Henderson listed a few of these visionaries, like MacCoubrey and Northumberland MP Christine Stewart and her husband David (who, with Father Tim Coughlan, founded Horizons of Friendship).

“Every 10 to 15 years, there's that stellar individual who enriches our community and, when they are gone, they certainly leave an impact.”

“I am honestly worried about the gaping hole this will leave,” Cunningham ventured.

“They just don't make them like Bill any more. He was a real presence, the same way Bob MacCoubrey was. Bob has been passed 10 years now, and I have yet to come across a personality like his. These people come along once in a lifetime.

“His ability to keep moving forward, to always see things in a positive way, to want to continue to help even when he was on his deathbed – it's something that I will remember,” she said.