News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 17, 2010

Stephanie Salter: He’s right, she’s left, but ‘they’ are just plain in love

Stephanie Salter
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — When Louise Crowder and Herb Patterson started seeing one another, Louise was clear about the future: “I told him we could have a 15-year engagement, but there wouldn’t be any marriage.” A widow for nearly 18 years, she had previously informed her grown children, “I wasn’t interested in another man or another marriage,” and she meant it.

Twice a widower, Herb previously had announced to his grown children, “There will not be another Mrs. Herbert Patterson,” and he meant it, too. However, he found himself responding to Louise’s marriage-ban declaration with an adage: “Never say never.”

Turns out, Herb was onto something. Today, he and the third Mrs. Patterson celebrate their first anniversary.

Louise is 80 and Herb is 86.

What happened?

“Well, he asked,” Louise said, smiling. You see, they were on a trip to Hawaii “and the moon was shining on the ocean and … ”

Herb said, “I just figured, ‘Herb, this is the time to do it.’ It took her a long time to answer.”

“And then I couldn’t say anything,” Louise said.

“She just went like this,” Herb said, slowly nodding his head.

Never say never.

The Pattersons are walking, talking, laughing, loving testimony to a few other bits of wisdom many of us tend to forget — or maybe never learned:

• You can make plans in life, but you never know what The Fates have in store for you.

• A relationship can look like an iffy bet on paper, but real people don’t live on paper.

• When it comes to l’amour, there is no such thing as “too old.”

Home for the Pattersons is a bright, top-floor double apartment at Westminster Village, where Herb and Louise met as confirmed single people in the summer of 2008. It all started one morning after the Republican Convention and kicked into a high gear because of the Wall Street Journal — but more about that in a minute.

After they were married last July (small ceremony, just a grown daughter and her husband on each side), Louise moved up one floor into Herb’s bigger place. There, they partook of a ritual that often brings newlyweds of any age to their knees: The Combining of the Stuff. Except, the two of them found they valued order much more than things, so they gave away or sold tons of possessions. “As you get older, stuff means less and less and less,” Louise said.

As do political differences.

Herb and Louise are like James Carville and Mary Matalin, only Herb is the proud conservative Republican, Louise the proud liberal Democrat. The large desk in their office has three identified areas — hers on the left (of course), his on the right and a DMZ in the middle “where anyone can work,” Louise said.

A portrait of Bobby Kennedy, framed with a signed funeral card from his widow, Ethel, sits in a prominent place in the office. Joking, Herb said, “When we have conservative Republicans for dinner, Bobby stays in a drawer.”

Like the stuff situation, the Pattersons decided politics would take a back seat to the “Us” they’ve become. Rather than focus on people and ideas about which they disagree, they concentrate on their plentiful common ground. (It helps that both are disappointed in the quality of leadership and authentic solutions offered anywhere these days in the political realm.)

Oh, sure, maybe once in a while “one of us will point out something and laugh more than the other one will,” said Louise, but mostly they are content to find opinions they share and accept that each one’s vote will cancel out the other’s.

“Arguing can’t be part of our lives,” Herb said, when asked if they ever get close to domestic political crossfire.

“We don’t have enough time for arguing,” Louise said, cracking wise, as usual, about the limits of old age. Besides, a political house divided seems to be her destiny.

“My late husband was a Republican,” she said. “Apparently, God never meant for me to love a Democrat.”

Speaking of God, Herb is a Baptist, Louise a Presbyterian. No problem there, either. One week they attend her church in Sullivan, the next week they go to Herb’s church in Terre Haute. Sometimes, Louise even refers to herself as a “Baptisterian.”

Although there is a sure hum of male-female electricity between Herb and Louise, it is telling that both say they were first attracted to the other’s brain.

“I knew right away she’s a smart lady,” Herb said. He discovered this when Louise, reading in a common room at Westminster, noticed Herb’s weekend Wall Street Journal and asked if she could have it when he was finished. She likes to read Peggy Noonan’s column, even though she often thinks the former Ronald Reagan speechwriter “should be edited down to about half.”

Herb was impressed, and offered his daily Journal as well.

Louise also “realized right away he had a good mind,” which is no small deal. “Do you know how hard it is to find someone with a good mind?” she said.

In fact, Herb’s good mind trumped his politics, which were obvious from the first moment the couple exchanged more than a hello in the elevator.

“It was one morning after the Republican Convention and Sarah Palin’s speech,” Herb said. “I saw Louise in the library and said, ‘Boy, we sure hit a home run with that one, didn’t we?’”

Louise answered with a mild harrumph and said, “Hmm. I don’t know about that.”

Shortly thereafter, Herb noticed some other things about Louise. “I think she’s a beautiful lady,” he said, “and an interesting lady; she’s traveled a lot, seen the world and has a good background in business.”

Indeed, Louise was the president of her first husband’s insurance company in Sullivan — pretty resourceful for a woman who majored in music at Iowa’s Luther College. When Joe Crowder died in 1990, “I was 60, awfully young,” she said, “so I got on a freighter and traveled from Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Buenos Aires and back. I liked it so much, I went again four years later.”

A love of travel is just one patch of the Pattersons’ common ground. Perhaps biggest is a love of family. Louise has five grandchildren and six great-grandkids from her daughter and late son. Herb, with five children, has 20 grandkids, 22 great-grandkids “and two on the way.”

“Our families love each other,” Louise said, acknowledging the blessing. “And I think they worry less about us because we’re not alone.”

The Pattersons also share a love for music that ranges from Luciano Pavarotti to Patsy Cline. Herb likes nothing more than to listen to Louise play American standards and hymns on the small organ in their apartment.

They like perching on a sofa and reading poetry to one another, too — when they aren’t watching baseball games on TV. Baseball has been a passion of Herb’s since he was a farm boy in Michigan and harbored dreams of playing major league ball. (He once played in an exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers.) Instead, “Uncle Sam called,” but Herb was sent first to an Army Special Training Program “at this little engineering college called Rose Polytechnic in this place called Terre Haute.”

After World War II ended, Herb returned to Rose and completed his degree in mechanical engineering. He founded a business on Wabash Avenue, Patterson Industries, which manufactured heavy industrial conveyors. Around 1981, the business needed a different kind of facility, but Herb knew the original building could serve a useful role, so he gave it to the Light House Mission, which is still there today.

Herb retired in 1990, but he’s one of those guys who can’t really quit working, so he spent the next 20 years volunteering at Union Hospital, helping patients navigate the shoals and eddies of Medicare claims and benefits. Earlier this month, with Medicare procedures now streamlined and the corps of volunteers down to just him, Herb retired from his salary-free job.

“We’re going to be doing some more traveling,” he said, so it’s just as well. One of the coming trips: Back to magical Hawaii.

In the meantime, Herb will continue to cook up his specialty dishes, which pleases Louise because, “I really like to eat.” They’ll listen to their opera, traditional jazz and country-western, they’ll watch ball games, read books, the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal, drive their new Buick to church and visit family.

And every Monday, Herb will ask Louise out for a Saturday night date and she will accept. Once he got that first big question out of the way in Hawaii, his wife has had no trouble saying the word, “Yes.”

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or