HOLLIDAYSBURG - The saying goes that those who can't do, teach.
But 91-year-old Bill Patterson would be quick to disagree.
For more than 25 years, Patterson was a history teacher at Bedford Area High School. But before teaching history, Patterson was busy making history.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Veteran Bill Patterson sits outside the Hollidaysburg Veterans Home on Tuesday.
In 1942, Patterson joined "The Few, the Proud" and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving in the 1st Battalion, 25st Marine Regiment, 4th Division.
Patterson was born in Clearfield and lived in Bedford for most of his adult life. When he enlisted, he was uprooted from his home and sent across the country to Pendleton, Calif.
Patterson said he was more than a little bit overwhelmed.
"Us WWII guys don't discuss it, but you never forget it," said Patterson. "Never."
Between fighting in some of the fiercest battles in the Pacific - Saipan, Tinian, Kwajalein and Iwo Jima - and receiving three bronze stars for his heroic efforts, Patterson found some time to explore the foreign islands.
After battling in Iwo Jima, Patterson said he and his troop scavenged the deserted area for surplus.
"Marines are nosy after a battle," he explained. "They want to see what kind of stuff they can get."
Patterson ended up uncovering a parachute pack that had belonged to a Japanese soldier. A fellow Marine's curiosity got the better of him when he pulled the ripcord, causing an expanse of silk material to burst out of the pack.
"'What did you do that for?'" Patterson said he remembered asking the Marine. "I don't know why, but I got the parachute silk and wrapped it in my poncho. I wrapped it up and put it on my back like a knapsack so no one would suspect anything."
Bundling it up beneath his poncho for safekeeping, Patterson took the parachute aboard ship and kept it on his person at all times, even while sleeping. When the troops arrived in Pearl Harbor, their rest camp, Patterson stuffed the parachute in a sea bag and brought it home to his sweetheart, Isabel Ickes.
"She was 19, and I was nine years older," Patterson said, laughing.
But the age difference didn't deter Patterson when he asked for Ickes' hand in marriage. Patterson keeps a photo from their wedding day tacked on a corkboard in his bedroom. In the photo, the couple pose side by side, smiling; Ickes wears a silk wedding gown, expertly and intricately stitched by her mother.
It's not at all apparent that the dress was fashioned from the silk parachute.
"My granddaughter still has [the dress]," Patterson said.
Patterson tells this story and others in "Bedford County Veterans WWII," a war documentary that was filmed in 2009 by Dennis Tice, director of the Bedford County Visitors Bureau.
But Patterson, who describes himself as a quiet man, didn't realize he would be getting his 15 minutes of fame when Tice began interviewing him.
"I didn't know he was going to tape me," Patterson laughed. "He insisted. From that film, he started to make a whole video. It just snowballed on him."
Shortly after the debut of the film, Patterson moved to the Hollidaysburg Veterans Home, where he has resided for less than a year. The Rev. Peggy J. Bonsell said Patterson has already made an impact on other residents as well as staff members, despite his relatively short time at the home. Bonsell, who serves as chaplain, said it's a pleasure to see a resident with such a positive outlook on life, calling Patterson "one of the good guys."
"He always seems to have new hope for a better tomorrow. He lives the way he believes. He's a happy-go-lucky person, and he's such a blessing to everybody that comes in contact with him," said Bonsell.
An optimistic personality might seem misplaced on a veteran Marine who faced terror and travesty in a time when hope was anything but a cup runneth over. Bonsell admits that some of the VA residents have expressed grief over their involvement in the war, but Patterson is a different story entirely.
"He's just not a negative person," Bonsell said. "He's a very happy individual, and he's so proud of his past career with the service."
More than three decades after serving in the USMC, Patterson began writing poetry and lyrics and composing music scores to express his personal experiences. His favorite poem, entitled "IWO," illustrates the hardships that Patterson faced in the uncertainty of war. Though the dates of the poems are scattered from 1976 to 2011, a majority of Patterson's poems were written in 2010 and 2011.
"It's very funny about music-writing, poetry or stories. You have a hot period of time where you just get an urge, anytime, even in the middle of the night," Patterson said. "I would write a poem in my mind, and I would get up in the middle of the night and write it down. I had to."
Though his poetry and lyricism echoes a man who has seen more in his entire life than most, and despite his years in combat across enemy lines, Patterson's life mantra is simple and embodies his positive nature: "Be a friend to everybody, regardless."