Longtime Coach Leaves Lasting Legacy on and Off Gym Floor
By Jessie Patterson Jones
For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought of my mom as limitless. She’s the ultimate marketer, the determined philanthropist, the fiery redhead. The list goes on and let’s be honest — on and on and on.
But it’s hard to fit the Sarah Patterson I know into the box most Alabama fans have concocted for her. Now, on the heels of her retirement in July, I think it’s time to share who she is when nobody’s looking – because that’s the true measure of a person, isn’t it?
When the spotlight fades, my mom shines even brighter. If you want to see her smile, you can talk to her about Alabama gymnastics, national titles and her favorite championship rings.
But, if you want to see her light up the whole room, ask her about the Power of Pink – and what it felt like when a family friend had to use the DCH Breast Cancer Fund that mom helped establish to pay for her treatment as she beat cancer. Ask her about her daughters – and what it means that they are both graduates of the University of Alabama, well on their way to happy, fulfilling lives of their own.
Here’s my take on the strongest, most incredible woman I know, and what it means to be simply “Sarah” – but I just call her “Mom.”
After a 36-year career leading the Alabama gymnastics program, with David Patterson at her side as both a loving husband and the ultimate assistant coach, it’s been a time of transition as Sarah has transitioned out of the only job she has ever known.
In 1978, Sarah Campbell accepted the job as the head coach for the University of Alabama’s gymnastics team, she knew she was taking on a lot – and would be facing creating her own legacy in the shadow of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and his football dynasty.
She embraced the opportunity, and headed South from her upstate New York home with a degree from Slippery Rock State College in Pennsylvania.
What many don’t know was that for Sarah, the trip back to Alabama was in many ways coming home. She was raised in Huntsville, Alabama from second grade through eighth grade.
“Then my family moved. But then I came back right after college,” Sarah said. “I did have some upbringing in the southern culture. I remember when I was starting ninth grade in Endicott, New York, and I responded to a teacher and said ‘yes sir.’ He told me I was being disrespectful and sassy by responding in that manner. I quickly knew I was not in the South anymore.”
Fast forward 36 years, and Sarah and David coached Alabama gymnastics to 6 NCAA championships, 29 NCAA regional titles and 8 SEC championships. But it’s the lessons they’ve taught and the relationships they’ve built with her former athletes that matter the most.
“For our career, the relationships mean everything,” she said. “That’s more important than any and all of the championships we’ve won, to see our athletes become successful women in their careers, as moms, to be great parents, and to be servants to their communities. I think that’s probably more rewarding than any of the championships that we won, to have had that influence on their lives.”
More than a decade ago, Sarah left her biggest mark on the Tuscaloosa community when she had a mammogram scare. While getting a routine check up, she couldn’t pass her mammogram. She received the ultimate in care, eventually finding out that nothing was wrong. The experience and extra testing caused her to ask what would have happened if she didn’t have great insurance. She didn’t like the answer, and set out to raise awareness for breast cancer in Tuscaloosa.
A partnership with the DCH Health System and local business owner and philanthropist David DeSantis led to the Power of Pink at the University of Alabama – and the establishment of the DCH Breast Cancer Fund, which provides mammograms and treatment, if needed, for women without insurance in the West Alabama area. To date, more than $1.3 million has been raised for the fund.
“Taking our fan base and using our position in the community to help make a difference in the lives of others was so important, because so many people helped us,” Sarah said. “I’m as proud of our involvement in our community as I am our success in athletics.
Now, Sarah is embarking on a new journey, as special assistant to the athletic director and working with the Crimson Tide Foundation. In the midst of wrapping up a storied career, her focus has turned inward as she undergoes two total knee replacements. The first one took place in late September, and have in many ways turned the tables on the lessons she taught athletes over four decades at the Capstone.
“So many of our ladies have texted me and said, ‘You’re the strongest woman I know,’” she said. “What I say to them is that I’m going through this rehabilitation process, and I’m trying to use the attitude that so many of them had when they were injured as athletes.
“I’m trying to emulate them now. They’re my role models and it’s so interesting for me to say that. It’s a role reversal, and I take what they say as a great compliment. I’m trying to follow in their lead coming off of surgery and preparing for another one.”
As the holiday season looms, things will look a little different at the Patterson household this year. Mom won’t be running around wrapping gifts and cooking meals at the same pace as she always has. In fact, I’ve been put in charge of Thanksgiving for first time in my life… and that’s a lot to live up to when Mom is one of the best cooks I know.
But as we prepare to gather together to celebrate and look back on a year of change, I’ll hug my husband, my sister and my incredible parents, and we’ll be looking forward to all the fun that’s in store for us when Mom gets through one more surgery.
We’re ready to tackle life’s adventures head on, no matter what comes next.
And her strength is the reason why.
Southern Rockin' Mama Balances Career and Family
Story by Kelly Caldwell, Summer 2014
Like most Southern musicians, Heather Russell's love affair with music began at an early age. Now lead singer for the group Paris Luna, she started in the choir at her hometown church.
"I think I started singing in church when I was like 5 years old," she said. "My mom, Celia, she was the pianist for the church, and I grew up singing right by her side.”
"She taught me piano. I really tried to learn from her, but I have always done it my own way. Everyone saw right out of the gate that I had a pretty voice, and there is nothing like that trial by fire process of singing in church!"
In her early 20s, Russell was a successful pharmaceutical sales representative. However, that wasn't her passion.
"I was in Nashville in this company owned car and had Dave Matthews Band's bus on one side of me, another tour bus on the other and then one pulled into traffic behind me, it was like 'Smokey and the Bandit' and I was trapped. It was then that I called my husband, Kane, and said I want to go for it," Russell remembered. "My boss thought I was joking when I met with him. I had just landed a really big account and turned in my notice during the same meeting."
In the early days, the group was known as the Heather Russell Band, but a promoter from Johnson City, Tennessee suggested a change.
"We were opening for Rusted Root and this promoter told me that if I wanted any press from the show I had to change the name of the band," Russell said.
He gave her 15 minutes, so Russell did the only thing she could.
"I called my mama," she laughed. "After she freaked out -- which didn't really help me at the time -- she told me a story from when I was like 8 years old."
Russell had just watched Lady and the Tramp before piano lessons and while her mother was trying to teach her Chekovski, Russell pushed her away."I told her to give me a minute, I wanted to write my own song," Russell said. “I then went on to compose my own song using Chekovski chords with a chorus mentioning the moon over Paris.”
"She said she would never forget that moment because it was the first time that I had amazed her musically," Russell said. "I had used what she had taught me, but I made it completely my own."
After that conversation, Russell still didn't have a name for the band and only 10 minutes remained before the press arrived.
"I was sitting there eating a Luna bar and just looked at the wrapper," she said. "Then it hit me! Paris Luna... I yelled at Kane in the next room, he liked it, I called the promoter and the rest is history.
"I remember walking in and seeing the promo poster for the first time thinking 'God, that's a good name.'"
Paris Luna was building a name for itself in Nashville in 2007, just after the release of the band's first album, "City Lights."
"We were touring all over, had a meeting with some Nashville bigwigs and then I found out I was pregnant," Russell said. "My mind was so centered on being famous back then and to be honest I was mad when I found out. It was God knowing that I never would have quit Paris Luna on my own to have a family."
Paris Luna toured up until the seventh month of Russell's pregnancy, and she still remembers that last show.
"I was huge and you could see Harrison move in my belly when Kane would play the drums," she said. "But I thought I could totally pull it off... After that night Kane said we might need to break for a bit."
Though she did try to make it back after Harrison was born, Russell faced new obstacles.
"I had such a fever to get back in it after Harrison was born," she said. "It seemed like it was the scarlet letter just because I had a kid. Doors were closing because I had a family and in their eyes I couldn't just leave.
"I almost gave up when Hudson was born. I had resigned myself to teaching. My spirit was broken, not because of the babies but it was a transition. Because being a mama and being the lead person for a band didn't mix for me then. I had tried to do the festival thing and it just didn't work.”
But, a parent of one of her students encouraged her to try again.
"He was a fan and told me how everyone loved Paris Luna. He said I should try again," Russell remembered. "So, we played a gig that we probably shouldn't have but when we got on stage it electrified. I was hooked again."
Paris Luna is climbing the musical ladder of success once again, but the group carries a slightly different mindset this time around.
"This is what I love. I am making the best of who I am and just believe that people will take notice," Russell said. "I have my children to thank for that!"
People are taking notice. In 2012 Paris Luna won the Georgia Music Award for Best Rock Female and has opened for Kenny Chesney, Sheryl Crow, and Phillip Phillips among other artists.
“If you love something enough and want it enough and give 150 percent of your mind body and soul, you can make it happen!" she said. "That's what I want to tell these girls today... Babies don't have to stop you from achieving what you want out of life. I haven't let them stop me. My babies are part of me and part of this business now. They love music and can't wait to be part of the band when they get bigger. "
Girl Scouts for Life
Story by Kelly Caldwell, Summer 2014
For sisters Lori Sewell and Robin Thornhill, the Girl Scouts of the United States of America provided more than just a chance to earn merit badges and sell boxes of cookies. The organization gave them lifelong friends and the belief that anything was possible.
"Our mom knew the importance of Girl Scouts and being in a rural area, she wanted us to have as much as we could," Thornhill said. "Girl Scouts was the vehicle that allowed us to explore and become the women we are today."
Founded in Savannah, Ga., in 1912 by Juliette Gordon Low, the Girl Scouts of the United States of America empowers girls from all walks of life and instills values such compassion, honesty, fairness, sisterhood and confidence.
"I can't remember a time growing up that I wasn't involved in Girl Scouts," Thornhill said. "I literally was born on the day of a scout meeting."
Lani Steele, Lori and Robin's mother, was only a Girl Scout herself for maybe a year growing up in Iowa. However, she valued what the organization represented and devoted nearly half her life to Girl Scouts.
"She was a scout leader for 20 or 30 years because she believed
in it so much," Thornhill said.
While Lani strongly believed in the importance of Girl Scouts, some of the activities would force her out of her natural element.
"Our mom was very prim and proper," Thornhill said. "She believed you weren't dressed unless you had your nails painted and were wearing earrings. So, you can imagine some of the camping trips and other outdoor activities were not her cup of tea. But, she did them anyway because she wanted us to know that we could do anything the boys could do and didn't ever have to depend on a man for anything."
Robin's love of camping began with Girl Scouts and continues to this day. Her husband and she recently renovated a Volkswagen Westfalia camper. Named "Scout," it is decorated with old Girl Scout and Boy Scout patches, uniforms and
"Scouting was such an important part of our lives that I wanted to honor that," she said.
Girl Scouts also gave Lori and Robin the confidence to be the business women they are today.
"My mom and Lori helped me with my Gold Award (the highest honor for a Girl Scout) project," Robin said. "It was a drama camp and was the first time that the three of us worked on something like that together.
"Fast forward several years, and we open the Ashland Theatre," Robin said. "We like to think that scouting gave us the skills to do what we do."
Lori and Robin's mom passed away last August, but just like the Girl Scouts she continues to be a guiding force in their lives.
"We are still learning little lessons from our mom," Robin said. "As we continue to grow as women and mothers, we realize the reasons behind the things she did and all we can say is 'Mom You Were Right.'"
Robin and Lori are owners of the Historic Ashland Theatre in downtown Ashland, Alabama.
Kay Ivey, Lieutenant Governor of Alabama
Story by Kelly Caldwell, Spring 2014
While Alabama Lt. Governor Kay Ivey is the highest ranking female in state office, don't call her a politician.
"I am just a regular Alabamian that believes in working hard, tithing, saving, not spending more than you have and helping other people the best you can," she said.
She came from humble beginnings, growing up in rural Camden, Alabama where parents instilled in their children the importance of hard work, saving their money and doing good.
"It really was our upbringing," she said. "Help folks make things better than how you found them."
In 1960s rural Alabama, there were not a tremendous amount of opportunities for women, but Ivey was given one that changed her life in numerous ways.
"I was involved in band and Future Homemakers of America which were great, but Girls State really taught me a great deal."
American Legion Auxiliary Girls State, according to its website, is a nonpartisan program that teaches young women responsible citizenship and love for God and Country.
" I had the opportunity to go to Alabama Girls State at Huntingdon College," she said. "I had never really been out of Camden much less to something like that. Hell, I didn't have a store bought dress until I was in 11th grade, my mama made all my clothes."
Girls State is a week long program where young people learn first-hand how their state and local governments work. Elections are ran, bills are debated and legislation is passed.
"I thought everyone would fun for governor, so I decided to run for lieutenant governor," Ivey said. "I had little Dixie cups planted with ivy and I put those out in everyone's room... Ivey for Lt. Governor.
"Well, I won the dang thing. It was an eye opening experience because I didn't know anyone. Girls State taught me how to meet people, the importance of eye contact and which side to wear your name tag."
It was definitely her first successful campaign and maybe even foreshadowed what was to come for Ivey, but most importantly the experience led her to meet some of the most influential women of her life, other than family of course.
"Ms. Lillian Andrews (director of Alabama Girls State at the time) taught us how to say the pledge properly and I have been teaching it to anyone who would listen ever since," Ivey said.
"President Reagan once said 'Freedom is never more than one generation away from vanishing.' It is so important to teach our young people the freedoms we have so they learn to cherish the ideals of liberty. No one guarantees happiness, a job or money. It is the pursuit of those things that we must protect."
After Girls State and Girls Nation, Ivey attended Auburn University where she had two goals.
"I wanted to graduate with a B average and play in the Auburn University Marching Band," Ivey said. "I achieved both but then I started looking at my priorities and focused more on student government and helping my fellow students."
Campaigns and elections came into Ivey's life once again and during her four years at Auburn, she ran and won five campus-wide campaigns, a record that still stands today.
"Every life experience you build on it, you don't realize it at the time, but that is what happens," she said. "You have to participate in that which surrounds you.
Ivey continued to participate in all that surrounded her as a teacher and banker before beginning her political career.
"My first teaching job out of college was at Rio Linda High School in Sacramento Calif." she said. "I created the first forensic and debate team there and we made it to the state finals that first year."
As a banker, Ivey became the first woman to be President of Alabama Young Bankers Association, which was when Girls State intervened in her life yet again.
"Mary George Waite (Former Girls State Director and Chairperson) was the first female to head the state banking association and she appointed me Chairman of the Education Committee," Ivey said.
"Girls State and the women involved opened doors for me which is why I try to open doors for young people now," Ivey said. "It's my way of paying it forward."
Ivey was the director of Girls State for four years and returns each June not only to speak to the young people but to also catch up with dear friends.
Another strong Southern woman, that impacted Ivey's life was Ruth Stovall, the first woman appointed Assistant State Director of Vocational Education for the Alabama Department of Education.
"I admired her a lot," Ivey said. "Legislators loved to see her coming down the hall because she always had the best cakes. She taught me to never let a man make a decision on an empty stomach."
Ivey ran for state auditor in 1982 and while it was unsuccessful, she did get a valuable piece of advice.
" Mary George was the first woman to do this or that and the mayor of her hometown, Ed Yarbrough, gave me some great advice when I was running for state auditor," Ivey said. "He told me... Kay don't talk about being the first woman to do this or that because no one really cares.
"Earn your way by the work you do. Tote your own water and stand your own ground. You will be respected," she said. "I have done a lot of "first woman" to do this or that, but that's not really as important as getting the job done."
Ivey has held a state office since 2003 when she became the first Republican State Treasurer since Reconstruction and is currently finishing her first term as lieutenant governor.
Woodland Lady Bobcats, Back-to-Back State Champions
Story by Kelly Caldwell, Spring 2014
Confident. Driven. Disciplined. Sacrifice. Faith. To some people, these words may not all work together, but they describe the Woodland Lady Bobcats completely. On their way to winning their back-to-back Class 2A state titles, those words were used more than once.The only blemish to the otherwise perfect season was the 64-62 loss to Lauderdale County on the road.
"We were robbed in that game," Jaide Walker, senior forward, said. "But, we really learned not to take things for granted. We had to play our best in each and every game."
Over the two seasons, the Lady Cats only lost three games , two of which were by only 2 points. After winning two titles and finishing as state runner up in 2011, this group of seniors are the most decorated in school history for sure, but its not a title the team took lightly.
"After winning it all last year, we couldn't imagine that we were going to do it again," Walker said. We just really took it one game at a time, and now we are finished playing for Woodland. It seems unreal to be done with something that has been such a big part of our lives for so long."
For the four starting seniors, Leah Strain, Shanna Strain, Shalyn Strain and Walker, the hard work began well before the first time any of the foursome put on a Woodland uniform.
"We started playing basketball as soon as we could walk," twin sisters Shalyn and Shanna said. "But we started playing together with Leah and Jaide when we were in third grade."
"We were the Dixie Thunder, and when we started I was terrible," Jaide said. "I remember my dad saying to me... Basketball... really? But, I worked hard at it."
Even back then the foursome was something special.
"We would have to play up an age group sometimes even two age groups," Leah said. "Sometimes the other team seemed like they were two feet taller than us."
To achieve this success, sacrifices were made. Every summer was spent in the gym either playing travel ball or attending team camps.
"We had to work hard for what we got. A lot of people think this was easy. Our vacations were in the gym unless a tournament was at the beach," Leah said. "We didn't have vacations like typical kids did. Our summers were spent in gyms and locker rooms."
While it was tough, none of the girls would trade it for anything.
"I don't think anyone likes camps," Shanna said. "But at the end of the day, when you were so tired you could barely move, we knew we were doing what it takes to be better players when it counted."
"There is going to be let-downs and disappointments in life," Leah said. "You can't let that beat you. You have to get back up and fight.
"I have always been one of the smaller players but my Gramps always told me 'It's not how big you are its how big your heart is and how big you play!' I will always carry that with me."
That determination will serve them well in the future. The twins will play basketball at Southern Union State Community College while Leah will continue her athletic career at Jacksonville State in the fall.
The girls are quick to give credit where its due.
"We give God all the Glory," Shalyn said. "He made all this possible and we wouldn't have anything without Him. The Lord has really blessed us that we have been able to play with such a great team."
These future leaders have also been fortunate to have some strong women in their lives to teach them what is important.
Jaide was quick to say that she looks up to her mom Rhonda for a very simple reason.
"She puts up with my dad," Jaide laughed. "It's a very hard job to do sometimes."
Shanna and Shalyn agreed their grandmother Linda Kirby is one of the strongest women then know.
"She doesn't let anyone take advantage of her and tells people like it is," Shalyn said.
"Yeah, she doesn't take crap off anyone," Shanna said.
While Leah believes her mother Robin has taught her a lot about being a strong Southern woman.
"She stands up for what she believes in," Leah said. " My dad is a football coach and she catches a lot of grief sometimes. Early on, she would hold her tongue in the stands but now she holds her ground for what she believes in. She is strong in her faith and life."
While the future is uncertain for these four, one thing is true. The girls are well on their way to being more than a couple of state titles earned in high school. Basketball has taught us so much about life," Leah said. "If you work hard and don't quit, anything is possible."
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