TOWNSHEND—Centenarian Warren Patrick and his family throw big birthday parties.
Sure, the COVID-19 pandemic may have altered their plans, but it could not stop them.
So instead of a party, they held a parade.
On June 12, sitting at the side of the road, Patrick wore his annual birthday shirt — this year’s read “Still shines at 109” — and waved at each car that drove through the parking lot of Valley Cares Inc. and the West River Valley Senior Housing complex.
Family members and longtime friends waved back at Patrick from their cars decorated with signs and balloons in the parade organized by Patrick’s granddaughter, Betsy Wadsworth, with the help of Valley Cares activity director Dawn Slade.
Under the shade of a nearby tree, members of the Alan Bills Band — Bills on trumpet and Jim Knapp on guitar — performed some of Patrick’s favorite oldies. Some Valley Cares residents danced in the parking lot as others sat 6 feet apart eating birthday cupcakes as staff, wearing masks, served lemonade.
A bittersweet lockdown
Under the shade of a tree, Patrick sat close to his three daughters.
The women had received a special dispensation to be near him under the category of “end-of-life care.” Executive Director Susanne Shapiro clarified that Patrick is not receiving care such as hospice. Given his age and that he is recovering from a broken bone, the state has permitted his daughters to be with him.
The COVID-19 virus has had an outsized effect on Vermont’s elder care facilities. According to data from the Vermont Department of Health, the rate of COVID-19 cases is “disproportionately high” among Vermonters 80 or older.
According to Shapiro, the assisted living portion of the organization has been under lockdown since mid-March. Only staff may enter the building.
To the extent that no resident has contracted the virus, the lockdown, so far, has worked. Yet, Shapiro added, that success is bittersweet. While the lockdown has protected the physical health of the facility’s 35 residents, it has also meant that their emotional health has suffered [see sidebar].
Shapiro said Patrick moved to Valley Cares when it opened in 2007. She added that he is the only remaining “founding resident.”
Shapiro appreciates Patrick’s “positive nature.” He is also polite, has a big sense of gratitude and a strong spiritual life, and loves to exercise.
The day before the party, Patrick walked with Shapiro from his apartment to sit outside.
“He would do stairs until he recently fell and broke a bone,” she said. This time, he used the elevator.
Paulene Lawrence, Patrick’s middle child, lives across the parking lot in the facilities’ independent living apartments.
“It went very well, and a lot of people showed up for the drive-by, so it made it really special,” Lawrence said.
She described her father as having “a positive outlook.”
“He’s always looked to the Lord and said that he’s blessed,” she said.
Life with a ‘jokester’
Lawrence and her sisters, Sally Wadsworth and Marlene Thibault, describing their father‘s wicked sense of fun, all called him “a jokester.”
A family vacation at a beach in New Hampshire, approximately 50 years ago, comes to their minds.
“He went inside and dressed up in a costume, and a wig, and everything, and came out and danced around for the grandchildren,” Lawrence remembered. “It was hysterical — they didn’t even know who it was.”
“He kind of passed that on to the grandkids when they were little,” Lawrence added. “They used to call him Funny Grandpa.”
On Saturday, during a phone interview, Wadsworth called to Thibault. It’s clear by the voices in the background that the family is gathering at Wadsworth’s house.
“When we think about Dad, what should other people know about him?” Wadsworth asked Thibault.
The sisters briefly conferred.
“Yeah, someone else in the group here has said — and it’s very true — that he is a jokester,” Wadsworth said. “He does find humor in most things, and everybody at Valley Cares enjoys that.”
Wadsworth added, “My niece Betsy said he has high moral standards and a deep faith — and those are things we look up to him for, and his ability to persevere, and to make the best of a situation like the COVID.”
According to Wadsworth, Patrick enjoyed his birthday party, especially the music.
“And he was just overwhelmed, I think, and surprised that there would be a parade in his honor,” Wadsworth said.
The day was very special for Thibault. A resident of St. Albans, she hasn’t been allowed to see her father for a long time. Only a few days before the event, she got permission to sit with him during the party.
The courage to follow dreams
The sisters described their father as a Renaissance man.
They said Patrick always kept busy and held a variety of jobs. At different times he worked as a farmer, a substitute English teacher, a town clerk, a justice of the peace, a school bus driver, a store clerk, a builder, and a real estate agent.
The sisters said he enjoyed reading and writing short pieces.
On April 15, Patrick fell and fractured his pelvis, according to his daughters. He spent approximately five weeks at Grace Cottage Hospital, where he received extensive physical therapy.
Wadsworth said Patrick is no longer experiencing pain and is back to walking with a walker.
Prior to the accident, Patrick typed out letters to the editor, or poems, or “funny things.” He regularly submitted his work to places such as Reader’s Digest, as well as to The Commons and the Brattleboro Reformer.
Patrick enjoyed baking and usually had a loaf of banana bread for the sisters to take home when they visited. Reminisce magazine once published one his recipes, according to his daughters.
“He loved nature and animals, and photography was one of his main hobbies,” Wadsworth said.
Wadsworth and Thibault say their father has seen so much in his long life. They listed the historic events he lived through: World War I, the 1918 Spanish Influenza, the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War. Patrick has also outlived several loved ones such as his wife, Phyllis Hoag Patrick, who died in 1994.
From Connecticut to Vermont
According to Wadsworth and Thibault, Patrick’s father was a dairy farmer, and Patrick delivered milk as a young man.
He met Phyllis, whose house was on his delivery route, at night school. He courted her through love notes stashed among the milk bottles.
The couple lived in Connecticut before moving the family to Vermont in 1945.
Before the move to Jamaica, their father was working in manufacturing, according to Wadsworth. He loved visiting Vermont to go deer hunting.
Thibault was 10 years old when the family moved. Lawrence was a toddler, and Wadsworth was an infant.
“He was the envy of all his buddies in Connecticut because he had the tenacity to move to Vermont and live out his dream of living off the land, deer hunting, and of having a garden,” Thibault said. “He loved the outdoors.”
Thibault said she wasn’t sure why their parents chose to settle in Jamaica — perhaps that’s where they could find an available farm. Their father named theirs Stone Boat Farm, now a bed-and-breakfast.
A stone boat is essentially a large sled used to move heavy objects from the fields with horses..
“Because there was an old barn in the backyard when we arrived, and there were some stone boats there, he named it Stone Boat Farm,” she said.
Wadsworth said the family farm was pretty rudimentary.
“We didn’t have running water, and we didn’t have inside bathrooms,” she said. “Marlene being older, she had to shovel the path to the outhouse in the winter for us little ones so we could get out there.”
When Wadsworth reached fourth grade, her parents sold the farm and moved the girls into the village, to a house with an inside bathroom, she said.
Thibault added, “Sally was an infant, and I brought the water in from the brook in the back yard for my mother to heat up and to wash her diapers.”
As a 10 year-old, Thibault said, “It was fun, it was an adventure.”
Thibault added, “I thrived on it, because I never went to the same school two years in a row until we got to Vermont, because we did move a lot in Connecticut, too, when I was growing up.”
She described vivid memories of her father chopping wood until late at night. He wanted to ensure the family could keep the woodstove burning while “he went off to two or three different jobs to keep us going,” she said.
“Now you’re bringing me tears,” she said.
A few years ago, Thibault sent Patrick an article about the bear population in Vermont.
Patrick replied with a handwritten note that said: “Thank you, I used to hunt bear, but I got cold, and put my clothes on.”
She plans to frame this note.
Beth Thibault took the phone, describing her grandfather as active in the community.
“[Community service] was a real priority for him,” Beth Thibault said. “He knew everybody and everybody knew him, and a sense of community was really a strong value of his.”
Patrick had a lot of friends and as a justice of the peace, he also knew all about people’s lives.
“But he wasn’t a gossip,” she said. “He knew a lot of what was going on, but he kept a lot of it under his hat.”
Still, Patrick’s community connections had a downside.
“People would want to have his services on the weekend,” Beth Thibault said. “They’d knock on the door on the weekend to get him to sign something — so he ended up building a little cottage up the valley and called it No Knock or Ring, because there was no phone or way for people to reach him.”
According to her, Patrick was one of the first builders of A-frame houses for the second-home owners in an emerging ski economy.
He would build the houses after his workday or on weekends.
“And he made all of those buildings with just hand tools,” she said. “He had no power tools, so he sawed every board by hand, he hammered every nail, mixed cement, all by himself.”
Patrick was an avid collector of antique cameras, she adds. Part of his collection was donated to the museum of the Historical Society of Windham County.
Beth Thibault remembers her grandfather trading the cameras with photography buffs all over the world. Before easy access to tablets and laptops, and when he was over 100 years old, she remembers that Patrick had a MailStation, a dedicated email device that he used to communicate with other enthusiasts.
This spring, Patrick became a great-great-grandfather with the births of two new babies in the family. One new granddaughter he’s met. The other is only a month old.
See you next year!
Patrick has told Lawrence that the secret to his longevity is the support he has received from family and friends, and for the past 13 years from Valley Cares.
“He doesn’t take it lightly,” she said. “He always says, he knows he’s had help — well, that’s his faith — and, well, he just doesn’t give up.”
Wadsworth said the family couldn’t visit Patrick while he was recuperating from his broken pelvis at Grace Cottage. Once he returned to Valley Cares, Shapiro worked with the state to clear Wadsworth and Lawrence to help him in person with his recovery process.
“We’ve been helping Valley Cares by staying with him when he eats so he doesn’t choke,” Lawrence said.
While the concern with Patrick choking seems to have passed, Lawrence said she and Wadsworth still take turns spending lunchtime with their dad.
“And then we take him out if it’s a nice day. He loves that — he does some walking up and down the hall, he seems to be gaining. It’s amazing,” she said.
Is he lucky? Or stubborn?
“Determined, I guess,” Lawrence said.
Wadsworth added that the family has the greatest respect for Shapiro and for how much she helped Patrick transition back to the facility after his accident.
When the sisters enter the building, they go through the same safety protocol as the staff. They wash their hands, wear their masks, have their temperatures taken, and answer their daily health questionnaires, Wadsworth explained.
Ever since Patrick turned 100 years old, he ends each birthday celebration with a happy “See you next year!”
This year, during his birthday party, Patrick turned to his daughters and asked what the family was planning for his 110th birthday.
“He asked while he was sitting in the chair there, if they’re going to do this for 109, what are they going to do for the 110th,” Lawrence said, laughing. “That’s just like him, right?”
“He always said on his birthday every year since 100, ‘See you next year,’ and we always thought, ‘Yeah, right, Dad,’” Lawrence added. “But so far he’s been right.”