A Heart to Serve
Anne Patten epitomizes the fabric of the community. Her love of life, community and family are characteristics that are apparent in every thing she does. She has made such a positive impact in this community because of her dedication to serve others.
BY ANN BLOXOM SMITH | PORTRAIT BY BRAD ARENDER
“Her life counted, and I wanted my life to count.”
Monroe’s “General” Anne Patten has certainly lived a life that counts. She has spent the last twenty-six years as executive director of the local chapter of the American Red Cross. And she has served her community in countless other ways. But the life she spoke of so fondly, so admiringly and respectfully, was that of the late Nan Salisbury, who gave sixty years to the Girl Scouts. Hers was a life of service, and it is one of many influences Patten thankfully acknowledges.
Getting Patten to talk about her own life is quite a trick. She continually guides the conversation towards others—men and women who have served their community through the years. Nan Salisbury was one of the earlier influences that led Patten toward her life of service. Growing up in Alexandria, she spent summers with her grandmother in Monroe, where she enjoyed many hours with her friend Mary Ann and her mother Nan, who became a mentor to the young Patten. Nan encouraged the young girl, telling her she was a “born leader.”
“Born to lead” seems the perfect description for this Southern lady. Patten’s great grandmother, May Lee Wooten, was one the founders of the local Red Cross chapter back in 1917, also leading in the women’s suffrage movement and serving as the first president of the Monroe Garden Club. Her grandmother, Anna Wooten Slagle, was a charter member of the Junior League, the first female life insurance agent for John Hancock Insurance in the United States, one of the founding members of Grace Episcopal Church, and a campaigner for President Dwight Eisenhower. One year, amazingly, she was president of ten local organizations. It was she whom Patten visited during those summers in Monroe, and Patten acknowledges her great influence.
Leadership does seem to be a basic part of Patten’s personality, but leadership for her has more to do with encouragement than with giving orders. “At the Red Cross, there was always a lack of resources, and I believed I must give people the opportunity to fill those needs,” she explains. One of her past Bash chairs, Ashley King West (the Bash is the huge annual fundraiser for the local Red Cross), makes the point clear: “The way she deals with volunteers is gracious—she makes everyone feel appreciated.”
Judge Wendell Manning was one of those volunteers, one who became a board member and eventually a board chair. He met Patten in 1991 during the flood and subsequent Angus chemical plant explosion. He was state chair of the Disaster Legal Assistance program for the Louisiana State Bar Association’s Young Lawyers’ Section. When his committee was called upon to help after the two disasters, he was able to see Patten at work. What he noticed at once was that “no one could say no to her…She mobilized the community to respond.” She helped everyone be better than they knew they could be.
“For her it’s all about trust and relationships.” Those words are repeated by many who know her. As she talks about her life, especially her life as a community servant, she continually returns to her love of her board members, her love of volunteers, her love of her friends and their families. According to all the Red Cross leaders contacted, her care for them is personal and extends to “everyone in our families—our spouses, our children, our in-laws—even our dogs!” Loving notes, baskets of cookies, texts of encouraging Bible verses, meticulously planned birthday luncheons—all these and more are components of a friendship with Patten.
But this is a strong lady, too. Her twenty-six years of leading the local Red Cross chapter have included crises when she had to make quick—and difficult—decisions at all hours of the day and night. “Where should the evacuees be taken?” asked Tom Malmay of the Office of Emergency Preparedness. That was one phone call she received during the Sterlington crisis. School children were already on their afternoon buses, but they couldn’t be taken home. “You have to tell me within five minutes! Where will you shelter the town of Sterlington?” She got on the phone to the pastor of North Monroe Baptist Church, which was already serving as a medical center for flood victims and volunteers, and asked, “Can you take the explosion evacuees? Can you let us arrange for them to sleep—to eat, shower, live—at your church for an indefinite length of time?” And he said, “yes.”
She called Malmay back, within her five-minute limit, to tell him to bring the children and their families—and then she got to work to make it happen. The community pulled together, including individuals, churches and businesses like CenturyLink that gave employees permission to take up to a week off to volunteer.
And then of course there was Katrina and its 3,000 evacuees (plus more at satellite refugee centers), first at the Monroe Civic Center and later on at the old State Farm building, a housing need that lasted from August 2005 to the end of that year and beyond. Patten marshalled the troops—General Anne Patten—gathering the resources, organizing the volunteers, making the thousands of decisions necessary to help our community reach out to those in need. “There were 13,000 mental health visits during those months,” she says, attempting to explain the unspeakable pain of those who had lost everything. Some of the most painful memories she recalls are of those people who were unable to make any decisions: they simply could not decide what to do, where to go.
Her most tender memory of those days after Katrina was of her board chair, L.J. Holland. “He was my hero,” she said. On Sunday evening about 9:30, they were in her office on a conference call, during which he moved his chair up to her desk, put his head down and slept. He and other volunteers were working such long hours that they were exhausted. But they kept going, kept serving.
September 11, 2001, was one of the worst days in our nation’s life, a day and its aftermath that affected our local chapter of the Red Cross as well as the whole country. Patten and Judge Manning, then the newly elected board chair, were called upon, along with several other chapter leaders, to fly to Washington, DC, to help with decisions that had to be made by the national Red Cross office just five days after the tragedy. Manning remembers their landing in Washington to a “deafening silence” on city streets. The two were taken first to see the Pentagon, where smoke was still rising from the badly damaged building, and then to the national Red Cross headquarters. Volunteers needed to be coordinated, and enormous amounts of money—not usually considered a problem—had to be funneled to needs. According to Manning, Patten sensed turmoil among some of the national leaders over how to handle the record-breaking influx of donor dollars. She spoke up, saying, “You must honor donors’ intent.” That was her sincere belief and policy: donors’ trust cannot be broken. Volunteers with specialized training were then sent from Monroe to New York, where some volunteered for multiple tours of duty.
That is the kind of commitment that has always made Patten proud of her community. During the most difficult times—hurricanes, terrorist attacks, explosions–she becomes an “encourager,” considering that ability to be a gift from God, and then watches the result as her community comes through.
She also believes that her love of people—large groups of people as well as individuals—is a natural outgrowth of being born the second of seven children. She loved her big schools and went to a big high school–Bolton in Alexandria–and a big university–LSU in Baton Rouge. Transitioning from home to a college dormitory was no trouble for her and her siblings, with parents who encouraged them to express their opinions, to be giving and to enjoy all sorts of people. Her mother, Lee Slagle Pierson, graduated valedictorian of her class at Ouachita Parish High School and still lives a very active life, still very involved with her community.
In leadership classes, Patten tests off the chart as an extrovert—no surprise to anyone who knows her. Her preferred communication style is face to face. Judge Manning says that “the art of conversation is her social media.” Anne Cuthbert Patten, her daughter and a speech pathologist in Dallas, knows her “too well,” according to her mother, and she especially enjoys traveling with her mom, who never meets a stranger. “I become carefree just leaving the city limits!” Patten says. She loves to meet new people, to make new friends and then to connect new friends to old. Throwing parties, sharing her home with friends and family, is one of her joys in life. She loves to laugh and to be entertained, enjoying movies, theater and music with family and friends.
“Friendship is the best,” Patten says, admitting to have been “blessed with tons of friends” all her life. She is keenly interested in all her friends and their families, always having at least three “best” friends at any time. One of her long-time best friends, Paula Perry Blackman, passed away this past summer, and Patten was privileged to give the eulogy at her funeral. And now she is thankful that she has other friends who give her encouragement and comfort. One, Evelyn Johnson, also a past board chair, says that Patten is “one of the finest people I ever had the privilege of knowing.” Another friend already mentioned, Ashley West, states, “Anne is more than a friend; she is family to me.” And another, Margaret Ann King, a long-time friend and travel companion, asserts that Patten is all about loyalty and generosity.
Such loyalty and generosity leads naturally to service to community, her priority and great joy. “This is a lady that’s given her heart to this community,” exclaims Judge Manning. “She epitomizes the fabric of the community—she is the definition of community,” he says. James Moore, III, the current Red Cross board chair, describes her like this: “Anne has done an outstanding job during her twenty-six years with the Red Cross. She has made such a positive impact in this community because of her dedication to serve others.”
But all her service originates in her deep faith in God. She believes sincerely that she is more blessed to give than to receive. As a Christian, she believes and lives out the scriptural passage, “To whom much has been given, much is required.” And to those observing her, Patten is definitely “a doer of the Word and not a hearer only.”
“My departure from the Red Cross is a journey of faith, and the journey is not over!” We haven’t heard the last of Anne Patten.