David “Popeye” Patterson lived for horses. So when the 83-year-old Washington resident died last week, his family decided to send him off with some old friends.
“He always asked if we would take him to the cemetery” with a team of horses, said Cheryl Pattison, a friend of the family. “He wanted those horses to be part of the funeral.”
The Pattison family owns a farm on which Patterson helped out, but his love story with horses goes back to his early childhood.
“My grandmother owned a farm in Washington,” said Maxine Arbes, Patterson’s sister. “We would come up on the train from Canonsburg. They would pick him up, and he would want to spend all of his time with the horses. My grandmother had a lot of them because they didn’t know what tractors were back then.”
Patterson’s single passion in life was caring for and riding horses of all kinds. He was an owner himself and a hired handler to many others in the area.
In order to honor that passion, family members decided to send him off in grand fashion: in a horse-drawn wagon converted into a hearse especially for the occasion.
The pair of Percheron geldings used in the ceremony was very familiar to him. They were a team he would often ride behind on a plot of land in Avella.
“Popeye drove those horses a lot,” said Bob Pattison, Cheryl’s husband and owner of the team that helped carry Patterson to his final resting place. “He put a lot of miles on them. They loved him, and he loved them a lot.”
The Pattisons own a farm in Avella on which they raise and train wagon horses for events like weddings and parades. Most recently, they carried Santa Claus in the Washington Christmas parade. Because Patterson was such a friend to the family and their horses, they offered to carry him to the cemetery.
“They wanted to do something good for him because they said Popeye was so good to them,” Arbes said.
Bob’s grandson, Rod Pattison Jr., runs the family farm now. He said he got his start learning how to ride with Patterson.
“He would work all the horses for us,” the younger Pattison said. “He was around them all the time.”
Patterson was a gentle-hearted man who suffered from a mental disability caused by a difficult childbirth. He was described as a “gentle giant” who had an uncanny ability to communicate with the animals he worked with.
“He didn’t really talk much, but when he did I always listened,” Rod Pattison Jr. said. “I always looked up to him.”
Patterson was well known around horse circles. A lifelong equestrian, he helped handle the legendary standardbred racehorse Adios, who has a race named after him at The Meadows. He was Adios’ bedmate, the handler charged with sleeping in the stables to make sure nobody tampered with the horses.
“Adios couldn’t sleep without him,” Cheryl Pattison said.
Like most people gathered after the funeral, Patterson’s nephew Brad Arbes had memories of his uncle that revolved around the time they shared caring for horses.
“He was a real good guy to all the kids he trained,” Arbes said. “We spent a whole summer at the racetrack and would sleep with the horses. I dreamed of becoming a famous driver back then.”