Billie Jo Patton’s life has been anything but tame. Now 90, she moved to Japan on her own early – and things only got more interesting from there.
Billie, who was born in 1929, says she was always a bit of a tomboy. She grew up in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, the oldest of three children, and took every possible opportunity to be outside. Her mother cared for the house and family until her father, an electrician, left when Billie was in ninth grade. Then the family moved to Greely, Colorado and her mother began managing the café there.
“My mother was a wonderful person,” Billie says. “She worked hard, but we had fun too.”
In high school, Billie enjoyed home economics, history, and social studies, but one of her favorite classes was typing. She was good at it, too, and she decided to take a secretarial course after graduation. Her dream was to become a flight attendant, but she couldn’t join till she was 21, so she decided to work. But then she met a woman who’d just finished serving in the army, and the stories the woman told captured Billie’s imagination. At 19, she enlisted, and off she went to the ladies’ training facility in Petersburg, Virginia.
“We were the last class to only go to training for eight weeks,” she recalls. “After that, they had to go much longer.”
For Billie, it was enough. She was often so homesick, she’d lie in her bunk at night and dream up ways to run away. Eventually, though, she adjusted and, after training, she went to work helping a colonel with travel logistics. Her younger brother was serving in Korea, and she once wondered to the colonel whether she’d ever be able to visit him there. The colonel had an idea: it would be much easier for Billie to catch her brother on R & R if she were stationed in Tokyo. So, he pulled a few strings and Billie, just 20, headed off across the world. She did indeed get to see her brother, but she also saw one of the country’s most famous Army men every day: General MacArthur.
“I didn’t work for him,” she says, “but I worked in the same building. Every day, right on the dot of eight in the morning, his limo pulled up and he got out. And every evening, right on the dot of five, his limo would pull up and away he’d go. We used to crowd around the windows and watch.”
She met someone else during her two and a half years in Tokyo too: a young Air Force meteorologist who caught her attention as soon as she saw him at the NCO club. His name was Richard Patton and he and Billie hit it off right away.
“Six months after we met, he looked at me and asked, ‘so when are you going to marry me,’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘When you ask me!’ So he did and we did. Twice, actually. Once at the American Consul in Japan and once in the base chapel.”
Since there was no joint housing – she was Army, he was Air Force, remember – the couple was sent to Osaka, where they lived, ironically, in a California-style home. Their son was born there in 1952 and they returned to the States when he was three months old. Soon, Richard was sent to Germany. But since Billie was pregnant with their daughter, she had to wait until the baby was born and reached six months of age before she and the kids could join him. Just six months after she arrived, Richard was transferred to France, where he finished his tour. Then it was back to the U.S., Washington state for three years and then another four in Alaska. She vividly remembers attending the parade that celebrated Alaska’s statehood in 1959. They wound up Charles’ 21-year career in Homestead, Florida and, since the kids had been campaigning to stop moving so much, Richard took a job with Delta and the family moved to East Point, Georgia.
Billie, of course, had to leave the military when she began to show, as was standard in those days. But throughout Richard’s career, she stayed involved with the wives’ NCO and volunteered in various military hospitals.
“They used to call us ‘grey ladies,’” she says. “What you call candy stripers now, I guess.”
Once the kids reached high school, Billie worked for a while at a sporting goods store and at J.P. Allen. But once the grandkids started coming, she found she’d much rather babysit them. She and Richard loved to bowl and joined a league for a while. Billie, ever the outdoorswoman, also took great satisfaction from handling the yard work.
“I mowed the yard and cleaned the pool,” she says. “Oh and I always had a garden. I just loved to garden! I liked being home over the years, cooking, taking care of my family, being there when the kids came in from school. It was a great life.”
Last year, Billie and Richard moved into Heartis Senior Living in Fayetteville and Richard passed this past April. Billie’s son, Alan, passed away last month after a hard battle with cancer. Still, she says, she wouldn’t trade her life for anything.
“Sixty-nine years we were married,” she says. “We had a lot of adventures over the years and we were so very blessed. It makes a difference, doesn’t it, to have a partner who’s really a partner? We had such a wonderful marriage.”
Billie’s daughter, Patti, says Billie’s great passion has always been her family.
“Her family means more to her than anything,” Patti says. “It always has. She was very close to her grandparents and her mother. She always looked up to her mother as a strong woman, and mom followed in her mother’s footsteps in that way. She always went above and beyond for them, for her husband and children, and now for her three grandkids and seven great-grands. She just takes great care of everyone.”
Grandson Sean agrees.
“She’s definitely the matriarch of our family,” he says. “We’re a big, kind of rowdy bunch but she can always rein us in and she somehow manages to keep up with where everyone is and what everyone is doing. I’d say her chaos management skills are off the charts! But really, she keeps us connected and she’s probably the strongest person I’ve ever known.”
HER LIFE ADVICE:
“Have confidence and pride in yourself. Be strong and have the strength to say no. Know your worth; everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time.”