A compelling look at a fierce competitor who died at a young age.
Leon Patterson still remains a legend in certain athletic circles over 60 years after he succumbed to kidney disease. Born into a family of migrant farmworkers from Arkansas, he reportedly began performing manual farm labor at the age of 6, which influenced his cultural attitudes, educational background, and physical prowess. An all-around gifted athlete, he eventually focused his considerable energies on mastering the discus and shot put. When co-author Gerald Haslam (In Thought and Action, 2011, etc.) was a freshman in 1952, he participated in a track meet in which, he says, Leon became “the first high school athlete to put the 12-pound shot over 60 feet in competition.” As he reveals in the afterword, this connection led to his own sporadic interest in Leon’s story over many decades and, ultimately, his desire to present a full, nuanced portrait of this larger-than-life figure. Together with his wife and co-author, Janice, he ably shapes a wide range of source material into a coherent narrative. The trump card here is their access to an unpublished memoir by Dixie Kenney, a girl who captured Leon’s attention and became his biggest supporter. As a girlfriend, wife, training partner of sorts, mother, co-worker, and widow, this is her story as much as it is his, and her perspective is invaluable. The authors write in a largely unadorned style but occasionally employ evocative language, as in a description of the Kern County landscape: “Terrain becomes sloping and hilly there, looking most of the year like the tan, muscular shoulders of resting cougars.” California has attracted many waves of economic migration, spurred by the gold rush, agriculture, railroads, and urban manufacturing; in this case, the Patterson family became part of the oil industry, a milieu with its own set of cultural trappings. Thus, as the subtitle suggests, Haslam presents not just an inspirational tale of personal determination, but also the history of a particular region—one that even longtime residents and admirers of the Golden State may not know.
A well-researched, historically contextualized biography.