By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – When John Patterson’s parents moved to town in the early 1940s, the first place they lived when he was a small child was in a house next door to the Davisville Free Library.
In retrospect that experience seems like a foretelling of things to come.
“My father was a professional wrestler known as Jake ‘Thunderbolt’ Patterson after a hold he created called The Thunderbolt. In the off-season he was an ironworker and we came here so he and my mother could work at the Navy bases.
“I would go to the library in the afternoon and that’s where I developed my love of books.”
Among his favorites from elementary school years were the Jack Armstrong and Nancy Drew series.
He shares these memories at his North Quidnessett home as he recovers from lower back surgery.
On Sept. 25, in celebration of his 75th birthday and in honor of his retirement after 15 years as president of the library’s board of trustees, Patterson was feted for two hours at the Davisville site by a throng of admirers.
“I was discharged from Roberts [Health Centre] on Saturday and went to the party on Sunday.”
The event was much deserved since John and Lou Iannella spearheaded the effort to renovate the library and get it reopened. On Jan. 1, 1997, a sign went up: Closed for repairs.
“Of course, there was no hope of reopening,” John recalls. “The [elderly] librarian was too frail to come in anymore.”
A few months later, a meeting was called to develop a plan to get the library back on its feet.
“Ten of us showed up with lawn chairs. It was a litany of bad news. Lou and I took the lead because he has a lot of experience with construction and managing projects and I have a lot of experience with budgets, programs and management.”
The library, built in 1924, had serious asbestos issues.
“We had a $10,000 grant from the Champlin Foundations to replace the windows,” John explains. “We plowed ahead. The contractor replicated the windows. Then we applied to Champlin again for money to restore the building. We had an oil-spewing furnace which we converted to gas and we got air conditioning installed for the patrons’ comfort and the preservation of the books.”
The library reopened in 1999.
“We wanted to maintain the same feel of 1940,” he says of the inviting atmosphere the place retains. “Our guest book has entries from people who’d visited with their mothers 40 years ago.”
By 2003, an expansion was completed with all of the comfy old features recreated with new materials.
John was delighted because “the bookcases, the floors, the ceiling fans were exactly the same.”
He notes that the Davisville library is not a municipal entity but relies on grants from the town and state as well as donations from organizations and money brought in through fundraisers.
Of course, John is not known for his bookishness alone.
After retiring here in 1994 following 28 years in the U.S. Foreign Service – a career that sent him all over the world to such places as Afghanistan, Cairo, the Philippines and Rwanda – he was persuaded to enter politics.
Running as a Republican, he won his very first race, securing a seat in the State Senate by a margin of 36 votes. He served two terms and later was elected to three terms on the town council.
John is still active in the town GOP committee, serves on the board of the Quonset Development Corporation and is an active member of the North Kingstown Rotary. He points out that his three great loves are the library, politics and World War II.
Indeed, the home office that he shares with his wife, Lillian, a teacher at CCRI, is filled with historic military photos, books and memorabilia including family portraits.
“My uncle, 1st Lieutenant Alexander R. Nininger, was killed on Bataan and received the first Medal of Honor for World War II,” he says proudly. “He was just out of West Point and was killed early in the war.”
In his uncle’s honor, John created a book and manuscript collection in the West Point library and also founded the Philippines Scouts Heritage Society to commemorate the home guard that was responsible for protecting the island.
“The enlisted men were Filipinos and the officers were American. We have a newsletter and an annual meeting. Next year, we’re meeting in the Philippines.”
Although he has stepped down from the top job at Davisville, John says he’ll remain on the board and will continue writing grant proposals.
“I have to stay active.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at email@example.com .