The Man on the Job at Dayton

The following appeared in Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, May 8, 1913


The Man on the Job at Dayton
The remarkable story of John H. Patterson and his personality

By Edgar Allen Forbes

          Once before, on the heels of a great disaster, I had climbed aboard a west-bound train and hastened to a pitiful scene of desolation. Then, the greatest mine disaster in our history had taken place and more than a hundred men had been entombed. The subterranean cavern was filled with deadly gases into which no man might venture except at the risk of his life. It was not morbid curiosity nor "news value" that drew me to the mouth of the shaft. Into the black depths, at frequent intervals, was being lowered a little group of men—clean cut, Anglo-Saxons of the best American stock. Down they went, with set faces; and up they came, an hour later, white-faced and gasping. But their work ceased not until the charred and blackened body of the last miner had been brought to the family waiting on the hillside in pitiful silence. To stand at the mouth of the pit and watch the men on the job—that was an experience worth traveling far.
          And to see John Patterson on the job in Dayton was worth a much longer journey.
          The mad current of the Miami, remember, swept down upon the beautiful city with such swiftness that the worst had happened before anybody had time to think. The city government was instantly swept out of existence. The mayor, marooned in an office building, was as helpless as a shipwrecked mariner on a desert island. The chief of police, isolated in another building, was as powerless as his scattered patrolmen— all of whom were involuntarily on "fixed posts" for the next forty-eight hours. Waterworks, telephones, electric lights, gas, every form of transportation—all had suddenly ceased to exist. The great city of Dayton no longer had even food or drinking water.
          Then happened an incident that is unique in the history of great disasters. One of the distinguished citizens, whose manufacturing plant of thirty-eight acres was on an elevation outside the danger zone, stepped out on the roof and took one swift look at the square miles of desolation. Then he rose to the emergency like a cork bobbing out of the water, for John Patterson has a thinking apparatus which hums like a dynamo; it reaches a decision with the rapidity of a well-oiled piston, and his conclusions have the decisiveness of a steel-trap.
          He came down from the roof and sent for his heads of departments. They hitched up their trousers and came across the thirty-eight acres on the jump. By the time they reached the office, Mr. Patterson had drawn on the blackboard the outline reproduced at the bottom of this page. Every man found his work cut out for him, with a "full speed ahead" order pinned to it.
          And it was this Patterson organization which saved Dayton from a worse disaster. It was the man at the head of it who caused the newspapers to say with disgust a few days later, "The death loss has been greatly exaggerated;" and who caused a grateful nation to give thanks because there had been a real man on the job in the hour of the city's direst need.
          Though done on the spur of the moment, the temporary work was done with such efficiency that nothing had to be undone. The Governor of Ohio, being one of those rare officials who have insomnia when a great emergency pops up in the night, set his seal upon everything which Mr. Patterson had begun. The telegraph clicked off an order which placed Dayton under martial law and automatically threw the city government out of a job. He appointed a citizens' committee of five, with John H. Patterson at its head, and gave specific directions that everybody, including the State troops, should be subject to his direction. This was merely Governor Cox's way of expressing his absolute confidence in Mr. Patterson's integrity and of his ability to swing a job of any size.
          Meanwhile, without even calling a Cabinet meeting, President Wilson brushed all red-tape aside and started his Secretary of War toward Dayton, with instructions to get there the best way he could—but to get there quickly. With him went General Leonard Wood, commanding the army, and Major Rhoades, the President's personal aide. They risked their lives repeatedly by insisting that their special train be run over dangerous track, and they finally reached Dayton by automobile from Cincinnati. The first thing that Secretary Garrison did was to shake hands with John H. Patterson; next, he took off his big overcoat; third, in a business-like fashion, he asked Mr. Patterson to explain the temporary organization. Every detail of it was approved by the representatives of the President and Dayton was told that the American Government would back the city and its public-spirited leader to the fullest extent. The Patterson organization lacked only one essential department—an efficient sanitary corps to avert the danger of a pestilence following the flood. Secretary Garrison's earnest desire to make Mr. Patterson's work effective in every respect led him to lend the services of Major Rhoades himself to be the head of his sanitary department. Then the President's representatives' returned to Washington to report that the local and State authorities (meaning John Patterson) had the situation well in hand.
          And who is this John Patterson upon whose swift work the Government of Ohio and of the United States set such enthusiastic approval? He is the same John H. Patterson whom the United States Courts had sentenced to the penitentiary only a few weeks before!
          By way of refreshing fitful memory, here are a few of the things which Mr. Patterson did during the first days of the disaster.
          (1) His entire plant, with heat, light, power, and equipment, was placed at the service of his stricken city. All work was suspended and his army of 7,000 employees (except those who were themselves marooned in the flood) was set to work to save the people of Dayton and to feed them.
          (2) He ordered his wood-working department to make boats and to make them quickly. Boat building was something new to the Cash Register business but his men responded to the tune of one boat every 17 minutes! While they were not staunch enough for the main current, the flotilla was used to rescue those in the greatest danger and to carry food and water to others who were imprisoned in their homes.
          (3) He personally guaranteed the payment of bills amounting to half a million dollars and held his entire personal fortune ready for any demand that might be made upon it. Also, though his factory was closed for two weeks, he continued the salaries of his 7,000 employees —an item that amounted to something like $250,000. His factory was a restaurant for the hungry, a boarding-house for the homeless, a hospital for the sick, and a morgue for the dead.
          (4) As soon as the wheels of his great organization began to work automatically, as called for by his "pyramid," he went out to give his personal assistance to the actual work of rescue. It was raining and the boiling waters of the Miami were very wet—and Mr. Patterson is sixty-nine years old. Most men of that age would have a nervous chill at even the thought of getting their feet wet, but the big man of Dayton is as hard as nails and he went out in the boats like a longshoreman. And he did not have to tie flannel around his throat and drink catnip tea after the day's wet and strenuous work was done.
          (5) His son Frederick, a whole-souled American boy with plenty of his father's spunk, was also invited to get into the game. The lad rolled up his sleeves and took charge of the boats. When night came he had juicy blisters on his hands, but also the satisfaction of knowing how many lives he had saved in one heroic day.
          (6) His daughter Dorothy, a beautiful and cultured girl just budding into woman-hood, also received an invitation to get busy. She needed no urging. The suburban home was turned over to the servants while she rushed down to the big factory and gave her whole energy to the task of caring for the women and children, especially those who were already ill. And this was no mere impulse of the hour, no spectacular play to the galleries; after the excitement was all over and the work began to get humdrum, she still clung tightly to her important job—and she has remained one of the big factors in the relief work of the stricken city.
          Now the man who had done all this was far beyond the age when, as some think, a man's activities should be painlessly oslerized with ether.
          Also, he was one of that class of men whom the cartoonist draws as an octopus or as a bloated bully, wearing checked clothes with the dollar-mark embroidered in each check. Besides he was supposed to be embittered toward mankind in general and government in particular as the result of having been branded by the Sherman law as a menace to society. I therefore climbed aboard the train with no loftier motive than to catch the man on the job and see what sort of person he might be.
          I confess that the personality of Mr. Patterson was a great surprise to me. I was looking for an aggressive domineering, sour-visaged man, with a disposition that would curdle the milk in a delivery wagon passing along the street. I found instead a modest, unassuming, sociable gentleman with not a trace of arrogance about him. He is one of the last men in Dayton whom a stranger would pick out as the biggest man in it, for he is just an ordinary American business man of the Ohio type. He is not a man of many words and he does not speak abruptly nor in a tone of finality. In a conference with the Board of Army Engineers, for instance, he sat quiet and let others do the talking. Not until one of the engineers casually announced that they expected it to take two years for them to gather data on which to make a report to the Government did Mr. Patterson get on his feet. He made it perfectly clear that no two years' research was required to show that the channel of the Miami should be widened and deepened and that Dayton couldn't wait for elaborate scientific investigations. He was not worked up about it; he merely told this to the engineers in a quiet voice, but any man who heard him would be willing to bet that something happens to the Miami soon or the Army Board will be asked embarrassing questions. He is himself accustomed to doing big things in a hurry and he naturally assumes that Government chiefs like Secretary Garrison (whom he found to be a man with a business head like his own) will also find a way to work miracles of engineering.
          John Patterson does not go about the streets of Dayton with the air of one who carries the universe on his shoulders. He shows not a trace of his sixty-nine years, is not weighed down with his burdens, and his nervous system is not snarled and tangled by perplexities and worries. He has shouldered a heavy load but it rests lightly upon him. It is true that he hits his job at 5 A. M. regularly and he sometimes works late into the night; however, he has his work so organized that he can attend to most of it in the forenoon. He is not handicapped with the idea that everything must have his individuality stamped upon it, and so he delegates the details like a general commanding the army. As a matter of fact, he carries the responsibilities of the city of Dayton on top of his ordinary business with as much ease as if it were his normal day's work. And that is one of the reasons why he can do six men's work without having disturbances of digestion and temper.
          To watch John H. Patterson swing his big job in Dayton to know the man as he really is, in his home as well as in his public life, and then to write about him in calm and calculating phrases is impossible. I make no attempt to do so. He is not only one of the most remarkable men that this generation has produced; he is also one of the most genuinely American. (Will Hodge, in the role of the Kokomo lawyer in "The Man From Home" is no truer type.)
          For instance, everybody knows that, if he wanted to do so, he could buy a French chateau or a German baronial castle and move it stone by stone to Dayton. But the Patterson taste is not feudal nor bourgeois, and the only castles he builds are in the air. He has erected for his family a quaint bungalow, on the crest of a beautiful wooded hill, where the squirrels play in the tree-tops and a multitude of birds sing in the branches. No armed guards sentinel the open gateway that leads to this retreat; no graven images in livery wait at the door. If you arrive unexpectedly and press the electric button, the ring will probably be answered by Miss Dorothy herself unless she happens to be busy in the kitchen.
          And this bungalow is the Patterson home.
          Finished in mission style and furnished with an eye to comfort and refinement rather than display, it is a dream of a place. You are profoundly impressed that you are in a home of culture and refinement, but it is of a kind that makes you as comfortable as in a log cabin, with never a feeling that you may topple over some priceless piece of bric-a-brac.
          In the least conspicuous parts of the house you may find antiques and curios, yet your host does not parade them before your gaze. But the Patterson pride is human and must assert itself in some way; there is one objet d'art of which he is unspeakably proud, and it was the only one which he took me to see. No, it was not a Madonna, nor a Michael Angelo, nor a Louis Quinze dresser; it was the old powder-horn that the Patterson grand-father carried when he was the companion of Daniel Boone! Said I not that he is American?
          And what do you suppose is the pet dissipation of this violator of the Sherman law, this lord of 7,100 employees, this organizer who is supposed to think only in diagrams and figures? You will find it hidden away in a clump of trees, a few hundred yards from the bungalow—a log cabin with one whole side left off. On the raised floor are soft mattresses and cushions, filled with fragrant balsam-in the yard in front is a huge pile of logs, with kindling all ready to be lit. The Patterson idea of a wild time in the gloaming is to distribute his guests over the cushions light the log-fire, and chat for hours on subjects not even remotely connected with cash or registers. The environment calls for a cob-pipe, of course, but he seems to have no use for either tobacco or whiskey. (But what can you expect from a man who has broken the Sherman Anti-Trust law?)
          Pages could be written about the gracious hospitality that is dispensed in this delightful American home but one incident tells it all in a few words. At the height of the flood a weary correspondent straggled into Dayton and hoped incidentally (so he has confessed), that he would have a chance to bump into "that — Patterson" and knock him into the mud. In less than forty-eight hours the reporter was sleeping in "that—Patterson's" bed eating his food, wearing dry Patterson socks, and ready to fight any man who spoke of John H. in words of less than five enthusiastic syllables. And let it not be forgotten that it takes more than grub to convert a hardened reporter.
          I trust that it is not indelicate to say just here that the Patterson home shelters a son and a daughter of whom the father may justly be more proud than of his great plant of thirty-eight acres. You need only to look at their faces on the opposite page and see that much. These two heirs of the Patterson millions have been schooled, of course in all the graces of society. On Monday night, for instance, they were at a fashionable ball in Cincinnati; on Tuesday the flood came, and they reached their home on the last train. That night the fire broke out and two row-boats hastened to the rescue of the imprisoned people. In one of the boats was a Catholic priest; in the other was Frederick Patterson and another young "society man." All the next day the son worked the oars, with blistered hands, while Miss Dorothy was busy serving food to the refugees, none of whom recognized the heiress in a waitress's uniform. It is not exaggeration that prompts me to say that it is impossible to know this noble girl and not be unspeakably proud of American womanhood. That's the kind of folks the Patterson children are—and it is John H. (violator of the Sherman law!) who has himself reared these motherless children from infancy.
          The distress of Dayton itself is easily understood, but the anxiety of those outside who had families and friends in peril of the flood has not been appreciated. That anxiety cannot be set down in figures but it means something to know that Denver alone sent 680 telegrams of inquiry. During the critical period Mr. Patterson received more than 4,000 messages asking for information or urging him to aid some family whose fate was unknown. In addition, at least 13,000 other telegrams were sent to the National Cash Register offices.
          All these meant just one thing—that a big bunch of people all over the country felt that John H. Patterson could reach their families, and would reach them, if anybody could. Two men on a train headed for Dayton, each with a family in the flood, were overheard exchanging confidences. One of them explained that he was worried sick because he had sent a telegram and received no reply:
          ^Who did you send it to?" asked the other.
          I sent it to my wife direct."
          "No wonder. You might have known it wouldn’t get through. I sent my telegram to John Patterson— and I've got the answer here in my pocket."
          There are in the business world a lot of would-be Pattersons who delude themselves with the idea that genius of organization is the whole secret of business success.
          They envy John H. Patterson his wonderful brain but fail to see that his heart has had as much to do with his success as his brain has had. Everybody knows that he is the man who first put the "well" into welfare work" for employees, and he to-day seems to have as much pride in his Hills and Dales" park as in his beautiful factory buildings. (How many manufacturers are there in this country who have a flock of automobiles at the service of their employees on Sunday waiting to take them out to the ball-game? And in how many other plants may an employee take a bath on his employer's time? It has been said, (I know not on whose authority) that Mr. Patterson's exceptional programme of welfare work, which has set the pace for the whole country, is but the fulfillment of a promise to the lost wife of his youth. However that may be, I have a suspicion that most of his benevolence springs from his own heart.
          For example, on an evening when his mind was grappling with the problems of feeding the homeless thousands of Dayton and when he had guests waiting in his bungalow, somebody brought in from the woods a baby squirrel which was nearly dead with hunger and cold. It stopped all the wheels. For half an hour Mr. Patterson was so busy seeing that squirrel get a new start in life that he seemed to forget everything else. It was a trifling incident, of course, but I know plenty of men who would have turned that squirrel over to the hired man!
          And when the crisis is over, and the stricken city is once again beautiful and prosperous, will somebody come along and lead this big-hearted man off to jail for a technical violation of the law? Not on your life! Dayton is a patient city, cheerful under martial law, while soldiers with loaded guns patrol its streets, and with a curfew law which sends everybody inside the front gate at seven P. M. But it will not be a patient city if anybody insists on hauling its biggest man off to jail. The man "who struck Billy Patterson" got away with it; but the man who swats John Patterson will have more than the whole State of Ohio at his heels.