This is one thing about which there seems to be no debate: J.W. Patterson is a University of Kentucky treasure.
Patterson, a communications professor and the student government adviser for 42 years, is retiring from his last and most significant job. At age 81, he is stepping down as director of UK's debate program, which since 1971 he has shaped into one of the nation's best.
Nearly 100 former students are in Lexington this weekend from as far away as New York and California for several parties and a big dinner in Patterson's honor.
"J.W. had a legendary career at UK," said Mayor Jim Newberry, who was advised by Patterson when he was student government president in 1977-78.
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"He put the debate team on the map and kept it there for decades," Newberry said. "There are not going to be very many people like him in the years to come, because it is rare to see anyone with the longevity at an institution that he had. He will be missed."
Gov. Steve Beshear was on UK's debate team under Patterson's predecessor, Gifford Blyton. But as a law student, Beshear worked two summers at the high school debate camp Patterson started and built into one of America's most prestigious.
"He has such a good rapport with students," Beshear said. "He would, in a sense, be your friend as well as your professor."
One of the first to arrive for the weekend festivities was Murray Stewart, 78, who drove from Tulsa, Okla. He was on the first debate team Patterson ever coached, at Muskogee (Okla.) Central High School in 1948.
"He had quite an influence on my life," said Stewart, a retired tax lawyer who said Patterson taught him self-confidence, organized thinking and impromptu speaking. "He's just a wonderful man."
Patterson, whose initials are the only first and middle names his parents gave him, is a native of Oklahoma who taught high school before earning graduate degrees from the universities of Michigan and Oklahoma. He joined UK's faculty in 1960, arriving on campus the day John F. Kennedy came to campaign for president.
"I came to UK because it was the best offer I got that didn't require me to do debate," Patterson said. "I was planning to get out of debate forever."
He became UK's student government adviser in 1964. That proved to be an interesting experience as the campus was swept up in national turmoil over the Vietnam war and societal change.
"It was a difficult time," said Patterson, who often was caught between students and top administrators. It didn't help that Patterson also was president of a faculty organization that sued UK to force the removal of National Guard troops from campus.
Perhaps UK's most controversial student president was Stephen Bright in 1970-71. He has since become one of the nation's leading death-penalty opponents and legal scholars, teaching at the Harvard and Yale law schools.
"Steve was an excellent president," Patterson said. "People would expect this long-haired radical, and he would come in with hair shorter than mine and wearing a suit. It would blow their minds."
Bright also remembers Patterson fondly. "He was engaged in more things involving students than just about any member of the faculty," said Bright, who heads the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.
"It was a tumultuous time," Bright said. "There were a lot of issues being passionately debated at the university ... the great issues of the day — war and peace, wealth and poverty and what kind of future the country ought to have. Dr. Patterson was somebody who liked to facilitate the exchange of ideas, which is really what you should try to do at a university."
Patterson served many roles at UK, including assistant to the president and organizer of UK's centennial celebration in 1965, which included a visit by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
But debate was always his first love. His greatest legacy is the UK debate team, which has consistently won top awards, including several national championships.
"It's almost like a one-on-one tutorial job," Patterson said of coaching debate. In retirement, he hopes to update a debating textbook he co-wrote.
About 75 percent of Patterson's debate students were pre-law and political science majors. But one of his best, who won a national championship, became one of Kentucky's best restaurateurs, Ouita Papka Michel of Holly Hill Inn in Midway.
"I went to the Culinary Institute of America, while others went on to Harvard and Yale," she said. "But debate was definitely one of the best aspects of my college career and serves me well in my life today."
Like many others, Michel remembers Patterson's passion for helping students succeed, in debate and in life.
"He was really tough, but in a friendly way," she said. "He's a person who in my mind will be forever young."