, Gloucester, MA

June 21, 2012

My View: A 100th birthday tribute to 'Big Ike'

My View
David Rhinelander

Isaac Patch IV, a local boy who has led an extraordinarily worthy, rewarding and influential life here and abroad during the past century, turned 100 Wednesday.

Big Ike, as his family calls him, served in the U.S. Navy and then State Department in Moscow during World War II. He then was posted in Manchuria, Prague, and Munich before moving to New York City in 1956, where he continued working on foreign affairs — unwittingly or wittingly — sometimes hooked up with the CIA. The family retired in the 1960s to Weston, Vt.

The first Patch to come to America from England settled in Salem in 1636. The Patch clan of farmers soon spread across Essex County. Ike's grandfather, farmer Isaac II accumulated over 350 acres of farmland in East Gloucester from Niles Beach to the Back Shore. His lawyer father, Isaac III, was mayor of Gloucester and later president of the Cape Ann Bank and Trust Co.

His mother, Helen Andrew Patch, grew up in LaPoint, Ind. Her brother, A. Piatt Andrew, earned a doctorate in economics at Harvard in 1900, settled in Gloucester and went on to an illustrious career, including 14 years as this district's U.S. congressman. The Route 128 bridge spanning the Annisquam River carries his name.

Our Ike, born in the family's house on East Main Street the year the Titanic sank, Fenway Park opened and the Red Sox won their first World Series, has wonderful memories of Gloucester and the world beyond, found in his two autobiographies: "Growing Up In Gloucester" and "Closing the Circle."

After attending the local schools, Ike went on to Amherst College for two years and enlisted in the Navy in January 1941 and was sent to sea in the Pacific. As the ship was plowing through rough seas south of Hawaii, Ike fell off a ladder and landed hard on the deck on his back, cracking a vertebra. During his months of slow recovery in Boston, he took an intensive Russian language course at Harvard and was given a medical discharge at age 29.

He then enrolled in a Russian history course at Harvard, where he became acquainted with classmate Frances Hoffman, who had earned a master's degree in international affairs from Tufts University and was fascinated with the Soviet Union. They decided to stay on at Harvard to pursue Russian history and literature.

Frannie then took a job with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and Ike was hired by the State Department as a code clerk at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Nineteen days after they were married, Ike left for Moscow.

A fanatical Red Sox fan who first went to Fenway Park at age 6, Ike often listened to Sox games on shortwave radio. He and friends once took a group of Russians into the countryside to teach them baseball. Most intriguing was trying to teach the concept of base stealing; they picked up each base as they approached and ran off with it; the crowd cheered every move.

Ike returned from Moscow to New York City in early October 1945, where Frannie and daughter Penny were waiting. Five months later, they were off to the port city of Dairen in northeastern China, where Ike became the vice consul. He resigned from the Foreign Service the next year and joined the staff of Center for International Studies at MIT.

He was transferred to the New York City office of Radio Liberty to launch a new project called The Book Program. Western books on politics, economics philosophy, technology and the arts that were banned by the Soviets were translated and then sent behind the Iron Curtain by various means. But by 1972, the budget had been cut so much that Ike called it quits.

By then Ike, Frannie and their children had a new focus — promoting liberal politics and racial integration in the North and South. Daughter Penny took up the civil rights cause in 1962 while a student in Swarthmore College and went south to work in Albany, Ga., for the summer. The next summer, the family traveled with Penny to Albany. Ike helped distribute leaflets, register voters and post bond for those arrested.

Frances died in 1983. The house burned to the ground in 1985. He and Nonie married in 1987 and lived in Franconia, N.H., until Nonie's death in 2009.

As June 20 approached, the Red Sox offered Ike special tickets for the big day, but he was not feeling up to a Fenway Park trip. So the radio and television broadcasters saluted him during the night game against the Miami Marlins.

David Rhinelander is a retired journalist who lives in Gloucester and is chairman of the Gloucester Historical Commission.