By Don Rush
It was a gray, damp and wet afternoon. A day while not perfect, but familiar, for the Detroit Tigers home opener of the 2019 season. I’d been listening to the game on the radio before heading out of downtown Clarkston to Waterford, specifically to the Executive Building of Oakland County, a little west of Telegraph Road.
A few days before, longtime Clarkston area (specifically, Independence Township) resident and nearly 30-year county executive, L. Brooks Patterson held a presser (what we in the businesses call a press conference) to announce he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer – not a good prognoses. A midst the flicker of of camera flashes, Brooks (as most folks call him) laid out the issue, joked, mentioned his longtime pal Forrest Milzow a couple of times and said he wasn’t down for the count. He had about four years left before his term finished, and he wouldn’t be seeking another term. Oh, no. He wasn’t stepping down, he just wasn’t seeking another term. He would take his family down to Florida for their annual vacation and then he’d be back to work. Fate gave him this hurdle to jump, and, by God, he would give it whirl and beat this demon called cancer. Say what you want, L. Brooks Patterson is a scrapper.
At that time, I knew I had to see him – heck, he was a hometown guy and The Clarkston News should do a story . . . . the more I thought on it, the more I rolled it around in my noggin, the more I figured we, The Cnews, should do a different type of article than other papers and news outlets. With a few local strings pulled, I was given a window of time to visit with L. Brooks Patterson again, a mere few days before he and his family headed south to sandy beaches and warm weather.
Truth be told, I interviewed him years before, met him an a number of chamber of commerce type events from Oxford, Orion to Clarkston. Heck, I saw him in one of his haunts with this posse, after hours across from the Clarkston News office, at the old Clarkston Cafe, which is now the Union Woodshop with a glass of red wine and a spoon perfectly balanced on his nose. He was the first person I voted for in a gubernatorial primary way back, gosh, I think in 1982. He lost to Richard Headlee. I’ve liked L. Brooks for many years – and like a many of us, didn’t always agree with him, shook our heads at him over episodes of Cadillacs on the rail road tracks (and the like), and grieved with him during his personal losses. He always bounced back. Maybe even stronger, kinder and wiser. He certainly set a course for Oakland County to be a place to live, work and play. He took his elected title as a mandate for the county, and the direction he envisioned.
Think of a harsh name, and he’s been called it. Love him or hate him, I don’t think he cares. Brooks, now 80, has always been focused on the objective. Still is. I toiled over how to write this for a week and the following is how I want to present our meeting. A sit down. Something different – something for a community paper. And, so goes our meeting, five floors up, over looking the County Court house at 1200 N. Telegraph Road, on April 4, 2019.
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Brooks, a Republican, has been Oakland County Exec for 27 years, running unopposed and winning when Dan Murphy stepped down. Prior to that, he spent 19 years working with and then as Oakland County Prosecutor. He presented his case against busing in the US Supreme Court and is known for his quick wit and rough and tumble political ways.
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When I walked in to the Executive Offices, like everyone else, I was met by Oakland County Sheriff’s Deputies behind a desk. You have to sign, in and show credentials. I had no creds, but fortunately, off to the right was a buffet of eats, the young lady getting something there at the same time I was checking in, over heard me and before the cops could go further in their questioning called out, “Brooks is expecting him.”
When went up the elevator and off to the left a few feet and she told me to sit down next to the hallway that led to Brooks’ office. Soon, a little black and brown colored, curly-haired ankle biter of about five months, on a leash was walked up to me. I think Daisy was her name. She smelled and licked me and I was told it was Brooks’ puppy who had just got back from the veterinary’s office – I assume because the Patterson family was two days from vacationing. Maybe it was a test, if the pup didn’t growl, bite or pee on me, the interview could start on a positive note. I was then ushered into a conference room to the right, where I sat for a few minutes. I heard a few words and ruffling outside a side door and soon, that door opened and Brooks rolled in riding his wheel chair.
Greetings complete, an aide left and there we were. Me and Brooks, me looking somewhat professional as a reporter with chinos and a button down shirt, he wearing a sweater vest (which, those who know me, know I have an affinity for. His was a pale yellow. Not the colored of a sweater vest I would don, but Brooks has his own style) and jeans.
To set the tone, I chided him on wearing jeans to the office, “What’s this?” I touched his leg. “Casual day at the county?’
Typical Brooks, the question was not one he expected. He laughed and blew it off.
Having a little knowledge of Brooks, but not knowing more personal stuff, I decided not to go with my scripted questions, preferring to be more organic and off the cuff, I asked, “Where’d you grow up?”
Bespectacled, he answered, “I grew up in northwest Detroit in the community of Rose dale Park. Went to public schools and then U of D (University of Detroit Jesuit) high school and then U of D Mercy college. I taught a year at Catholic Central. I joined the army and served from 1962 to 1964.”
He served as Assistant Prosecutor from 1968 to 1971, under Prosecutor Thomas Plunkett. “I never lost a case, but he let me go. I couldn’t figure it out. The only I could see was there was a ‘D’ after his name and an ‘R’ after mine. So, I asked him, ‘Why you cutting me loose?’ He said he didn’t want me to run against him. I said, ‘Ok. You just made my decision, I’m running.’ He said, ‘Bring it on.’ I won by 10,000 votes.”
Brooks would serve as Oakland County Prosecutor for 16 years, from 1972 to 1988.
“How did you get to Clarkston,” I asked.
“After getting married (in the early 1970s) we wanted to get up to a small town. We considered three communities. Rochester, and really neat town; Oxford, a nice community but too many gravel trains and Clarkston. We chose Clarkston. It was small, friendly and has great community spirit. We have been there ever since. Have never regretted living there.”
I went through my mind and recalled seeing a Clarkston News picture of L. Brooks and a pile of sand in front of the Dairy Queen that used to be on M-15. He and then wife Kathy owned the ice cream place. “What about that,” I inquired.
He laughed. “Back then, when we went on vacation I would mail my friends back home a little envelope of sand as a joke. One year my good friend Rob Dobson delivered two yards of sand and had it dumped in the parking lot. Cars couldn’t get in. I spent two days with a shovel cleaning it up. I took it home and made a sand box for the kids.”
Speaking of kids, did you know Brooks has 12 grand kids? Yup, and some of them call him Poppa, “Which,” he said, “I’m not really fond of. I’m their grandfather. What’s a ‘poppa?’”
His favorite US presidents, I was surprised to learn, are Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.
“You may not like Trump’s style, but you can’t argue with success. Home values are up, businesses are coming back from overseas and respect for America is up. Reagan demystified conservatives. He showed conservatives were not just Neanderthals. He came in after Watergate and helped restore faith and confidence in government.”
Madison and Jefferson, he said, were the brains behind the US Constitution and, to Brooks, were “geniuses.”
Out of left field I asked Brooks, “What would those Jesuit priests you grew up with, were they here today, say about Brooks?”
Again he smiled, “They would tell me, ‘the quote mark goes outside the comma.’ I think they would say, ‘We’re proud of him. We taught him to be a thinker and to be a doer. He doesn’t sit on the sidelines.’”
What about politics, I asked? Surprisingly he says being a politician is an “honorable profession.”
“It still is honorable. People have corrupted politics. I would ask people today, if they want to get involved, to get involved. Don’t be turned off by what you see today. We need good people to come back. And, if they have a love of country, they will.”
Before saying goodbye, and ending our little time together the one question I really wanted answered was, “What’s the ‘L’ in L. Brooks Patterson stand for?
“Well, when I was born, I was a twin which back then my folks didn’t know was going to happen. If their child was going to be a boy, they wanted a strong masculine name,” he said, putting his fists above his head like a boxer. “And, my brother was born. They named him Stephen James. A few minutes later, the doctor said, ‘Hold on, there’s another one in there,’ and I was born. They named me after my great grandfather Lewis Brooks, who was a colonel for the Union Army during the Civil War.”
His assistant then opened the door Brooks had rolled in through and said, “Mr. Patterson, your next appointment is here.”
He looked at me, smiled. “Tell everyone in Clarkston, ‘thanks for all the goodwill and support over all these years. I hope there will be many more to come.’”
I shook his hand, told him I would and just did.