Colleague remembers Patterson: 'He was a leader, but he was my friend'

Evan James Carter
The Detroit News

Forest Milzow says the first time he met L. Brooks Patterson, his friend of more than 40 years, was comical.

"(Patterson) was defending the busing in Pontiac. And he was on the front page of the paper every day, so I knew who he was," Milzow said. "We had a fundraiser for the American Legion and the sheriff in town raided the fundraiser and Brooks unfortunately had just been elected prosecutor, so it was up to him to prosecute all of us who were at the fundraiser."

Milzow and others at the fundraiser had T-shirts which read "free the Clarkston 88" made in protest. And when Patterson visited his bar in Deer Lake Athletic Club, Milzow was wearing one of the shirts.

"He came in to have a drink and we all started chatting and had fun with it," Milzow said. "He thought (the T-shirt) was a joke as we all did. We all had jokes over it for the last 40 years. He had a great sense of humor and was the type of person we could joke with."

State leaders who shared the spotlight with him and citizens who stayed outside of it are paying homage to the 80-year-old Patterson who died early Saturday morning. 

Those who knew the man described someone beyond the fiscally conservative county leader who made his mark representing National Action Group in its successful federal court battle against court-ordered cross-district busing and later helped Oakland County maintain its AAA bond rating in the midst of the Great Recession.

Gerald D. Poisson, chief deputy Oakland County executive, said Patterson "was a leader, but he was my friend. He certainly had his moments, but he was a great guy to be around.”

While Patterson made headlines with negative things he said about Detroit, Poisson said that wasn't all there was to the man he knew. 

“He was a kid from Northwest Detroit. ... the Detroit folks, whenever they asked for assistance, he was there for that. ... he loved Detroit."

Poisson will serve as county executive until either the Oakland County Board of Commissioners appoints a successor within 30 days or a special election is held.

George Miller, director of Oakland County's Department of Health and Human Services and executive director of The Rainbow Connection, a nonprofit started by Patterson to grant wishes to terminally ill children in Michigan, talked about the legacy of the seven-time county executive's charitable work.

More:L. Brooks Patterson, longtime Oakland County executive, dies at 80

More:Finley: Brooks lived by his own rules

More:Michigan officials pay tribute to the late L. Brooks Patterson

According to Miller, Patterson "always had a very soft heart for those in need."

"I think the biggest thing is he dedicated his entire life to serving people. To serving the residents of Oakland County in some fashion, whether it was through government, or whether it was through nonprofits, or whether it was through quietly helping helping individuals," Miller said. "He saw that that was why he was on this earth and had a great respect and belief in God and country. And I think it showed in what he did both vocally, sometimes in the media and quietly and humbly behind the scenes for individuals and organizations."

Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans said that Patterson was willing to help colleagues in need.

"When I took office as executive, Wayne County needed to implement major fiscal measures to avoid bankruptcy. Brooks generously lent high-level Oakland County staff to share their expertise as we created our Recovery Plan. That played a significant role in the Wayne County turnaround and I will be forever grateful for that,” Evans said in a statement.

“You never had to wonder where you stood with Brooks, and I always appreciated that," Evans continued. "He had the uncanny ability to make you laugh, even when you completely disagreed with what he was saying, and we disagreed plenty. But we worked well together because we understood and respected each other. He fought for what he believed was best for his county every single day."

Patterson was known for his wit and sharp comments, which occasionally got him into trouble, but longtime political adviser Jennifer Shoha said that the county leader never held any ill will.

"I think the biggest thing about Brooks that doesn’t get said enough is how big his heart was. He had a heart of gold and rarely held a grudge," Shoha said. "He could argue policy differences with force, get into heated debate, but when it was over he held no animus."

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell also shared fond memories of Patterson in a statement.

"We could disagree, but he did it with such humor it was always respectful. He loved Michigan, he loved Oakland county, his family and friends. ...

"I hope he and John (Dingell, the late U.S. representative, Debbie's husband) are sitting together and enjoying the fruits of their lives work. This has been a long hard year of losses of giants for this state.”

A public viewing will be held Aug. 6 from 1-7 p.m. at the Conference Center of the L. Brooks Patterson Building at 2100 Pontiac Lake Road in Waterford. Visitors may park in the lot at the Patterson Building. Overflow parking at the Oakland County Circuit Court parking lot with shuttle buses running to and from the Patterson Building is also available.

Visitations periods and the funeral will also be open to the public, both to be held at Woodside Bible Church on 6600 Rochester Road in Troy. Viewings will be held from 3-8 p.m. on Aug. 14 and 11 a.m.-1 p.m. on Aug. 15. The funeral will begin after the second day of visitation at 1:30 p.m. 

While the funeral is open to the public, a burial with full military honors will be private.