There are people who enter our lives that leave lasting impressions on us. They help us realize who we are; and who we aren’t. They encourage us. They inspire us. They teach us. They lead by example. I have been fortunate to have several people like this enter into my life. One of them was my favorite teacher.
I wrote this letter in June 2012 as a tribute to Mr. Patrilla. He departed into the arms of Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior earlier today.
I feel very fortunate to have had some wonderful teachers growing up. But none stand out more to me than my high school art teacher, Mr. Patrilla. “Mr. P” was that teacher that made you look at yourself differently, encouraging you to find your potential, pushing you just enough while also knowing when to back away and let you figure it out on your own.
Mr. P was my favorite teacher.
I remember several times when he taught me lessons through an art project, that when I look back now, I realize they weren’t really about the project. Sure, at the time it seemed like they were, but over time I realized they were life lessons: Don’t be afraid to fail. Stop worrying about perfection. Don’t limit your thinking. Be confident. Don’t give up. Get started NOW.
Through various classes from Metals to Sculpture, Mr. P mentored me in art and in life. He was a wonderfully talented artist who had several of his watercolor paintings commissioned by Ducks Unlimited as stamps. As an artist, he could chisel, carve, burn, sketch, paint and draw effortlessly.
He was a man of limited stature, standing maybe 5’6”. His voice was memorable. He wore wire rimmed glasses and had wavy white hair. But the thing I remember most – even to this day – were his hands. His hands were huge for a man of his height. They were thick, powerful, weathered and tough, capable of withstanding intense heat and yet able to deliver delicate strokes with a tiny brush on watercolor paper. Remarkable.
My favorite time spent with him was in Sculpture class. Back in the 80’s it was okay to carry a pocket knife to school and actually be able to use it in class (remember that?) He helped me shape my knife standard blade into a better carving knife just like his own. I was carving a ½ size decoy of a Mallard, which to this day I have never completed, but I like where it is. It reminds me of being in school watching and learning as Mr. P showed me how to make intricate cuts for the feathers and use a wood burning tool to cut them in.
I’m quite proud of how well that basswood Mallard decoy turned out. But it was the time I spent with Mr. P that made it so wonderful. We talked about his faith (in school, mind you), how he was a “teacher of teachers” (his words about his experience as a student at the Teachers College of Iowa – now UNI), relationships, his experience in WWII, and more. I watched, studied, listened and learned from him.
We had a boy in class; a “bad boy” who had spent time in a boy’s home, and later on, time in prison. But Mr. P had a way with him that I’ll never forget. When he got out of line, Mr. P would calmly but forcibly correct him. He cooperated most of the time, but there were occasions when it took a little more effort. One day it escalated to a new level and he threated to take on Mr. P – as in a fistfight. It was surreal watching the 16-year old 6’ bully attempt to intimidate my 5’6” 62 year old art teacher. What a mismatch – for the bully! Mr. P stood and calmly told him that he could try but it would end quickly and badly for him. I remember the resolve and seriousness in Mr. P’s eyes. And I remember the surprise and fear in his eyes. He quickly backed down, said he was just kidding, and went back to his project. Mr. P had earned the respect of the bully and nothing was ever really out of line after that day.
To this day I keep in touch with Mr. P but not as much as I would like. He lives north of Vinton on the same property with a nearly ½ mile long lane as he always has. He’s an old man now, slowed by age and deteriorating health. But I have no doubt that he’s the same man he was in 1988 when I knew him best. This is the second time I’ve written about him, the first being 20 years ago in college when I interviewed him for a Communications project. I still have that interview safely stored away at home.
He was my favorite teacher.
When I’m unsure of how to approach a delicate situation, or what seems like a monumental task that intimidates me, I think about him. I ask myself would I have the courage to say or do the things he did, or make an impact on others the way he did? Could I be as fearless as him? Have I lived my life to the degree that he did? He knows the impact he made on me because I’ve told him. He was one of the most significant people in my life to shape who I am today.
You see, Mr. P is my favorite teacher.
As I write this I am reminded of a lesson I learned a couple of years ago: we all need a Mr. P and we all need to be a Mr. P for someone else. Mr. Patrilla has wisdom, patience, compassion and strength. I owe a lot of who I am to him and am forever grateful. Thank you for teaching me the value of making mistakes, that patience is a virtue, and that strong men pray to their Lord.
Valmah Lee “Val” Patrilla, 89, departed into the arms of Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior, on Tuesday, December 8, 2015. You can read his obituary here.