It is a cliché to say, upon the death of someone notable, that his or her passing leaves such a void that it will seem awkward or strange to go forward with the business of life as usual. But clichés are founded on realities, and all of the above conditions certainly apply in the aftermath of Bob Patterson's passing last weekend as the result of a massive heart attack. What makes the widespread public regret and feelings of bereavement all the more striking is that Patterson had, for the past 17 years, been the taxman for residents of Shelby County. Although the office of Shelby County Trustee, to which Patterson was first elected in 1990, has certain other duties, the collection and administration of the county property tax and other standard levies is certainly foremost among them.
Yet it was virtually impossible to find someone with a grudge against Patterson — even among those public officials and elected bodies with whom he contended in his nonstop efforts to establish the Trustee's office as independent and jurisdictionally unbeholden to other branches of county government. Indeed, he was respected for his principled obstinance on the matter, just as he was heeded for the many warnings he gave during the last several years concerning a county financial picture that he insisted was more dismal than was described by other officials. In that regard, the recent cupboard-is-bare acknowledgement by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton in his speech advocating consolidation came as something of a confirmation of Patterson's warnings.
Patterson played the role of constructive dissident in county politics as well. Though he was a loyal Republican of long standing and was among the first county officers to advocate partisan elections in countywide races, he arrived at his positions and formed his relationships outside the establishment zones of either major party. It was not uncommon to see Patterson, wearing one of the many wide-brimmed hats he owned, in attendance at Democratic events as well as Republican ones. Patterson was the sponsor of two events that were considered staples of the political year — his yearly barbecue at Kirby Farms and the annual Christmas Party he and his wife Virginia held at their East Memphis home. In 2006 and last December, however, Patterson did not hold his Christmas party. He explained to friends that the turnout had begun to exceed the available space in his home and that he intended to resume the tradition once he had settled on an appropriate larger venue.
He was friendly to all and fair-minded and independent in his thinking, and for some time during the past year had given serious thought to running for county mayor himself during the next election cycle.
Ultimately, Patterson resolved to continue serving as Trustee. And why not? Only last year he earned the Victor E. Martinelli Award presented by the National Association of County Collectors, Treasurers and Finance Officers certifying him as the absolute tops in his field. It is therefore no cliché to say that Bob Patterson leaves a void. It is hard to imagine local politics and government without him.