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Dennis L. Patton


COURTESY NOTICE


Dennis Leon Patton, age 64, passed away March 16, 2024 at Kansas City Hospice House.


Dennis Patton was known for his practical advice to gardeners frustrated by the Midwest’s notorious soil and climate. The best time to get rid of chickweed? Autumn. Why won’t these tomato plants bear fruit? They’re tricky. They like warmth, sunlight and just the right amount of moisture. How to keep kids from trampling plants? Oh, just let them play and have fun in the garden. Do try to teach them not to step on the mulch.


But neither he, his loved ones nor the medical establishment could answer this: How could a healthy 64-year-old who had never smoked have lung cancer? Patton died March 16 after a battle with the disease. The October diagnosis stunned Laura Patton, his wife of 33 years, as well as their two sons, and scores of his co-workers, friends and fans of the KC Gardens column he had written for The Star for 30 years. Patton, who lived in Overland Park, was a legacy in the Kansas City area, having served in Kansas State University’s Johnson County Extension Office for 35 years.


“He propagated plants, but more importantly, he propagated people,” said his wife. “His degree at K-State was in horticulture, and his master’s was in adult education. That combination made his career. He was a teacher.” For much of his time in Johnson County, he earned the respect of thousands of community members through the Extension Master Gardener program. It surprised nobody when he earned the K-State Research and Extension’s Outstanding Extension Professional Award for 2023, alongside his 40-year recognition as an agent in the system. His weekly column offered not only advice but a sense of community. “Gardeners, overall, are cheerful people who enjoy life,” he wrote in a 2023 column. “Nurturing the lives of plants brings happiness and contributes to our general well-being.” Laura Patton herself spent years teaching before she took a job as program associate for the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, guiding teachers on the best ways to educate kids about a dark time in history. During her teaching years she met young students who had suffered the loss of a parent. “Our sons are 25 and 28, so they’re lucky,” she said. “There was time for their dad to teach them many things — mostly how much he loved them.”


Tara Markley, director at Johnson County K-State Research and Extension, said in the three-plus decades Patton worked there, his wisdom and wit touched people across Kansas and Missouri. “His title was horticulture ornamentals and turf agent, but his work as an educator and the master garden program defined him,” Markley said. “Because of the way he wrote and taught, people felt like they knew him. If you had one conversation with Dennis, you were his friend.” Markley choked up for a moment as she recalled her co-worker and friend of 11 years. “These are tears from happy memories,” she said. “He spoke the truth and was able to add humor into most any message, even when telling you your sugar maple was, indeed, dead.” Markley said she hears his legacy repeated when Johnson County Extension master gardeners quote his favorite lines: “It depends” (for horticulture-related questions) and “Life is too short for ugly plants. ”


In a nomination letter for the K-State award, his co-workers used numbers to deliver his impact. “Within Dennis’ tenure in Johnson County, the master gardener volunteers delivered a collective 672,571 hours, or 76.8 nonstop years, of service,” they wrote. Most notable was his determination to pull off the 2023 International Master Gardener Conference, which drew more than 1,100 people from across the county, Canada and Britain to Johnson County. “The conference was the shining star of his years,” said Markley. At a celebration after the event, Laura Patton was asked to speak. “He worked incredibly long hours to pull that off, especially in the last year, and I really couldn’t think of anything to say other than, ‘I’m happy to be getting my husband back,’” she said. Just months later, she said, he was diagnosed with cancer. His column, which appeared on KansasCity.com and in print in the Sunday Arts + Culture section, is now being written by extension horticulturalist Anthony Reardon. As Laura Patton spoke over the phone, the family dog — a rambunctious young wheaton terrier with a penchant for chewing pens — distracted her for a moment. Her husband wasn’t wild about the idea of getting this dog. “But she spent a lot of time beside him in bed when he was at Hospice House,” his wife said. “I think after all, he knew she turned out to be a pretty good dog.”


What hurts most, she said, are the adventures her husband will never have, the people he’ll never meet and the memories they won’t make together. Their oldest son, Caleb, met his fiancee, Fan LèLè, when he was teaching in China. They will marry soon in the United States. Patton will never meet LèLè in person. Like their father, Caleb and the Pattons’ youngest son, Noah, a high school band director in Texas, know their way around a county fair. All of the Patton men have earned grand prizes for their baking skills.


An agrarian upbringing gave Patton that passion for growing and cooking, as well as a love of chickens that delighted his wife. Growing up on his family farm, he often had a young chicken tucked under his arm. He and his siblings grew up farming land around Caldwell, Kansas, a city founded along the historic Chisholm Trail, which was used in the post-Civil war times to drive cattle from ranches in Texas to Kansas. Theirs is the fifth generation to work the land. Though the cattle are gone, through their married life, Patton would take his family home every year to help with the wheat harvest. It was his grandmother, who lived in one of the two homes on the farm, who planted Patton’s love of brilliant blooms, his wife said. At their home in Overland Park, he nurtured heirlooms — including peonies and iris — from his grandmother’s garden. In his retirement, he’d hoped to get back to raising chickens and working in his own garden. “I think our garden is lovely, but it was never quite as much as he wanted it to be,” said Laura Patton, noting that her gardening husband was frugal, and known for nursing flailing on-sale plants back to life. “The months of the year when he worked the most were the months he would have wanted to spend in his own garden. It’s a shame he didn’t have a chance to make it all it could be, but it is beautiful, nonetheless.”


To honor him, the Patton family asks those attending his gathering or his service to wear something brightly colored, or add a floral or botanical print. Black, after all, isn’t a color found in a garden. “Dennis didn’t want to have a sad, maudlin funeral,” his wife said. “He wanted to have a party.”

 

The Pattons' will greet friends from 1 to 5 p.m. March 22 in the LongHouse at the Overland Park Arboretum, 8909 W. 179th St. Those who attend can reminisce with the family, and are free to visit the garden that Dennis Patton helped to develop.


His memorial service will begin at 11 a.m. March 23 at Atonement Lutheran Church, 9948 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park.


In lieu of flowers, the Patton family asks for donations to Friends of the Arboretum, P.O. Box 26392, Overland Park, KS 66225; or the Johnson County Extension Education Foundation, Johnson County Extension, 11811 S. Sunset Drive, Olathe, KS 66061-7507.

~Composed by Maria Martin, Kansas City Star

 

Arrangements by: Penwell – Gabel Funeral Home,  14275 Black Bob Rd., Olathe, KS 66062.

 

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