“She’s full of joy,” said her friend Jay Kiefer. “She’s always happy.”
Patterson, now 83 years old, has been a resident of Livingston, Montana, since 1961. Her first husband had sponsored her immigration to the United States from Germany. Two years after arriving in the mountain town that reminded her of Austria, where her family had lived after fleeing the Russian army’s takeover of East Germany, she divorced.
Working as a waitress in a café to support her two young boys, she met Bill Patterson, a local railroad engineer, and married again.
“His parents built the Parkway Hotel in Livingston,” she recalled. “They were so good and kind to me. That’s when my good life began. He was the nicest, kindest man.”
After 10 years as a stay-at-home mother, Patterson began work in 1974 as one of 25 fly tyers for the world-famous Dan Bailey fly shop in Livingston. There for the next 22 years she would fashion feathers, fur and floss into six dozen flies a day.
“I used to tie a dozen an hour,” she said. “Now, it would probably take me an hour to tie one.”
A year ago, Graydon Hilyard, a Massachusetts-based author, tracked down Patterson at the recommendation of fly shop owner John Bailey – Dan Bailey’s son. Hilyard is beginning work on a new book in which Patterson will be prominently featured as an example of the many women who used to tie flies for local shops across America.
“These lady fly tyers have been ignored,” Hilyard said. “I want to bring them out of the shadows.”
Hilyard has authored two previous books on East Coast fly-fishing legends, including “Carrie G. Stevens: Maker of Rangeley Favorite Trout and Salmon Flies,” and “Bogdon,” creator of the “Rolls Royce of fly reels.” Both were published by Stackpole Books.
As part of his latest project, Hilyard asked Patterson to tie one of her much-loved fly patterns, one with a special story behind it.
Back in 1997 while working at Dan Bailey, a woman came into the shop to thank Patterson in person for the flies she had tied. It was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the high court.
“I met so many, many people there,” Patterson said.
The special fly she had tied was the Royal Wulff, a classic imitation pattern that can represent many different bugs. It is comprised of a deer hair tail, a peacock feather, red floss, white calf tail hair for profile and visibility and a chicken feather – called hackle – to imitate wings.
“This is my special fly, the Royal Wulff,” she said.
O’Connor was obviously impressed by the curly haired fly tyer with a German accent who had crafted the tiny flies. She wrote to Patterson four times – letters that now reside in her son’s fireproof safe.
Hilyard read through two biographies of O’Connor and not one of them mentioned her love of fly fishing. But Patterson has a snapshot of her standing next to O’Connor, as well as the letters, that say otherwise.
Her friend Kiefer, who works at Livingston’s Yellowstone Gateway Museum, has another confirmation of O’Connor’s visits. His friend, Todd Wester, used to guide the famed jurist when she visited. Wester also has a snapshot of himself and O’Connor on a fishing trip.
Patterson’s re-immersion in fly tying went fairly well, even though she no longer has her own equipment. The owners of Hatchfinders Fly Shop kindly provided a vise and tools for her.
“I found out my eyesight isn’t as good as 20 years ago,” Patterson said. “The tying itself I could do.”
Patterson’s life story, along with other Livingston-area residents, are now preserved on audio archives at the Yellowstone Gateway Museum. There you can hear Patterson’s frank tales in her own jaunty German-edged voice. Even after leaving war-hammered Germany, hardship followed as one of her sons wrestled with schizophrenia.
“The things I went through with him would make a horror story,” she said.
“I never let that take me down because I’m a believer. I have great faith in God.
“I pray a lot.”
To fill her days now, Patterson volunteers, shuttling elderly people to appointments and the theater to get them out of the house. Hardship struck again when her car broke down this winter and needed $400 in repairs. A couple at her church stepped forward and gave her the title to their Dodge Caravan – and even paid for the licensing.
“I found out at an early age that there were good people in the world,” Patterson said.
One example is her recollection of spending Christmas at a crowded Red Cross refugee camp when she was about 11. A blonde-haired American soldier dressed as Santa – a mythical man she had never heard of – handed out brown paper bags to all of the children. Each bag contained an apple, an orange, a Hershey’s chocolate bar, Lifesavers candy and a pencil with an eraser.
“We had never seen anything like that before,” she said. “The Germans were the enemy to those soldiers, but they were good to the children.”
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