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Victims of fire in Northwest Baltimore were 'stellar citizens'

They first met in college — where he played halfback for the football team and she was homecoming queen. Donald and Jennye worked together on civil rights issues and remained friends after he graduated from what was then Morgan State College in 1956.

After his first wife died of cancer in 1987, he was principal at Greenspring Junior High School and she was the assistant principal. They married, and Donald E.L. Patterson Sr. and Jennye Patterson lived in his house in Northwest Baltimore.

Early Wednesday, a fire ripped through the brick split-level on Mohawk Avenue, just north of Gwynn's Falls Park, killing the couple. A family friend said Donald Patterson, in his late 70s, was ailing, and that his 83-year-old wife had been caring for him.

The cause of the blaze, first reported at 4:38 a.m., remains under investigation. One victim died inside the home, the second at Sinai Hospital. The fire was the second fatal blaze in the city in a week. On Thursday, a mother and her two sons perished in a fire that swept through half a block in Southwest Baltimore.

"We just lost two stellar citizens, the kind of people we all wish we could be," said Patterson's neighbor and friend, Vera Hall. She said the couple, who devoted their lives to education, was always together, still worked with the community association and kept their lawn meticulous.

Worried about break-ins at a vacant house next door, the couple had put security bars on their front door and second-story bedroom window, but fire officials said that the bars did not delay their rescue efforts. Even as some firefighters used crowbars and axes to get through the barricades, officials said, others rushed in through other entrances to reach the elderly couple.

Still, neighbors expressed concern that the couple's attempts to protect themselves from intruders might have slowed or prevented their escape.

"I hope they weren't trapped in their own house," Hall said.

The Pattersons were part of a sprawling family that, according to the Afro-American newspaper and confirmed by a close relative, traces its lineage to an orphan slave girl in rural Virginia. More than 375 relatives gathered for a family reunion in Sparrows Point in 1983.

Donald Patterson was the cousin of Baltimore's first black school superintendent, Roland N. Patterson Sr., for whom the Greenspring middle school was once named. He himself rose to be an assistant superintendent in the city school system, and was an avid proponent of civil rights.

He was attending Morgan State when fellow students staged a sit-in at a lunch counter at the Read's drugstore at Howard and Lexington streets in 1955, protesting the store's refusal to let blacks eat at the counter. The store later changed its policies.

This year, when a fight erupted between preservationists and developers over tearing down the landmark, Patterson called the store a "a symbol of what African-Americans went through" and said that "we have to keep some of these symbols alive in the city. We cannot forget what happened then."

Helena Hicks, a retired state administrator and longtime friend of the couple who went to Morgan with them, said that "all of us were active at that time and tried to break down segregation with picketing and other measures."

Hicks, who participated in the sit-in at Read's, had spoken recently to Jennye Patterson, who talked of her husband's failing health and her role as his caregiver.

"Theirs was what everybody wants in a marriage," Hicks said. "They were not just partners but also good friends. They shared experiences and many friends for better than 50 years. After all those years of togetherness, who knows what happened today?"

Late Wednesday morning, charred white siding hung in pieces from the second story or buckled from the blaze. From the street, the house appeared blackened throughout its interior. All of the front windows were broken and glass was scattered on the lawn. A door with security bars hung loose on its hinges.

Neighbors said they heard smoke detectors sounding alarms during the fire.

On Wednesday, friends, neighbors and some relatives gathered at the remains of the Patterson house, among them Marion Patterson, widow of Roland Patterson. She had seen the fire on TV and said she "knew right away that was my cousin's house." She had just seen Jennye Patterson recently, she said.

Other relatives, scattered about the country, were making their way to Baltimore. Donald Patterson's son, a retired Marine, lives in Virginia, and family members said they were awaiting his arrival. "We know he is on his way, but what a stressful, tragic ride," said Doward Patterson, a cousin.

Hicks, who knew both victims back at Morgan and now sits on Baltimore's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation, said Jennye Patterson had been active in civil rights and was two or three years ahead of Donald Patterson.

Donald Patterson, a graduate of Dunbar High School, ran track but attended Morgan on a football scholarship. He played halfback, and newspaper accounts show that he once helped his Bears trounce Hampton Institute with two long runs, including a 42-yard scramble for a touchdown.

But it was after graduation that the son of a Sparrows Point steelworker made his mark. He attended other colleges, including Towson and Coppin, and earned a master's degree in education from Loyola College. He returned to Dunbar as an athletics coach, became a school administrator and settled into a principal job at Greenspring.

"They were a lovely couple, really dedicated to education," said Jimmy Gittings, a retired administrator for the city schools and president of the Administrative Union. "Education was really their life. … They both spent long hours working. They would be there at 7 a.m. and still there at 8 p.m."

Hicks said that Morgan in the 1950s was a small college where everyone knew each other, and students such as Donald and Jennye kept to the same social circles after graduating and for decades thereafter. He belonged to a fraternity, she to a sorority, and as recently as Labor Day they both attended a breakfast social.

"He was a great guy, she was a very nice person," Hicks said. "It was what you call a real storybook situation."

Dr. James F. Rogers, a urologist, came to Morgan from South America on a track scholarship and was put in a freshman dorm room with Donald Patterson. They remained friends, and called each other nearly every day over the last 20 years.

The former college roommate said Patterson couldn't stop talking about education. "He always boasted about what a good job he had done," Rogers recalled, laughing, from his home inPhiladelphia.

Rogers called his friend's death "devastating" and said his health had gradually improved over the past three months. "He had been doing fine, so this was a shock," he said.

The two had their final conversation Tuesday night when Patterson called to remind him to watch a television documentary airing Wednesday about a college football classic pitting Grambling State University against Morgan State at Yankee Stadium.

Played in 1968, it was the first football game played in New York City between historically black colleges.

It aired Wednesday night, and Patterson died before he got a chance to watch it.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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