When he enrolled in the U.S. Navy at the height of World War II, George Patten knew he'd suffer his share of wisecracks. Wherever he went, every smart aleck within shouting distance had the same question: Are you related to the Gen. George Patton?
Although their names were spelled differently, Patten played along, time after time.
"Yep, Old Blood and Guts is my uncle," he'd tell them with a straight face, leaving soldiers and sailors whispering as he walked off.
"He liked to pull people's legs," said Patten's son, Dan Patten. "He was an instigator and motivator."
Patten, an All-America gymnast at the University of Minnesota and 30-year Minneapolis public schools math teacher, died Nov. 19 from mesothelioma. The Plymouth resident was 87.
As a student at North High in Minneapolis, where he was an all-city and all-state gymnast, Patten would pile his teammates into his father's car to get them to meets, said Stan Dotseth, a high school friend.
After graduating in 1942, Patten competed for one year at the U before leaving to serve his country. After a three-year tour of duty, he returned for his sophomore and junior seasons, placing second overall in the Big Ten both years and earning All-America status as a junior, excelling as a tumbler. Before returning for his senior season, Patten sold insurance for two years as he recovered from wrist and back ailments.
He often joked that he graduated from college and walked right across the street in Dinkytown to take a job at the former Marshall-University High School, where he taught his entire career and where his physical fitness and dedication was the stuff of legends.
Former colleague Ed Prohofsky recalls the day a punishing winter storm forced the district to cancel classes. Patten never got word and, with the roads impassable by car, he jogged the 5 miles to school in driving snow only to find out that no one else was there.
"He wasn't going to miss school," Prohofsky said. "He loved the kids. He was dedicated."
During his time at Marshall, Patten revived the school's moribund swim and tennis squads, volunteered for a decade with the Gophers gymnastics team and taught private lessons in all three sports during offseasons.
Colleagues admired Patten's ability to connect with people inside the classroom and out. In the staff lounge, he had a playful knack for sparking heated discussion, then sitting back and laughing while co-workers argued, Prohofsky said.
After retirement, he tutored students through a volunteer program in the Robbinsdale School District and through his church, sometimes unsolicited. His wife, Adele, remembers his approaching a teenager at church one day, telling him, "I hear you're having a hard time with math."
Before the teen had a chance to respond, Patten was shaking his hand and saying, "You're just the man I wanted to see."
Patten was modest, shunning honors or recognition -- teaching or otherwise, colleague Don Sovell said.
Family and friends never learned about Patten's exploits as a gymnast from him; they heard from others.
"Recognition bothered him," Sovell said. "That was George."
About three years ago, Patten received a call. The man on the other end wanted to know what Patten would think of being inducted into the Gophers athletics Hall of Fame.
"Not interested. What I did years ago doesn't matter," Patten's wife recalls her husband saying.
Services for Patten were Tuesday. He is survived by his wife, four children, three stepchildren, a sister and 17 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491