Tuesday, July 17, 2007


A few days ago, we had the sad duty of reporting the death of Herman Van Patten. Anita Hart Fuller and Don Thompson brought to my attention a copyrighted article by Jay Grelen at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that ran recently, and we thought you might like to read it, if you missed it in the paper.

1957 duty unsung, but not forgotten

Those who know Herman Wendell Van Patten probably didn’t know this story about him, but they won’t be surprised by it.

One morning in September, 1957, one of the Little Rock Nine dropped a book as she exited the brown Ford station wagon in front of Central High School. Mr. Van Patten, a National Guardsman federalized by President Eisenhower, picked the book up and handed it to her. In those tense times, however, with the whole country watching desegregation in Little Rock, such courtesies weren’t allowed. His superiors in the United States Army told him not to do that again. He had one job: to protect the Little Rock Nine. Even the brief attention to a dropped book could be an opening for trouble.

“Always keep your eyes peeled,” Roger Vaughan recalls the bosses telling Herman. “The colonel who talked to us told us how important it was to protect those kids. ‘If you see a rock coming, stick your head in front of it.’”

Mr. Van Patten was one of six National Guardsmen from Searcy who occupied the Jeeps front and back of the well-photographed station wagon that delivered the students to school every day.

Leo Person, a friend of Mr. Van Patten's and owner of a hardware store in Searcy, was the company clerk and stayed at Camp Robinson while his fellow soldiers made the daily school run. "They took cue sticks and cut them into billy clubs,” he says. “They drilled a hole through the handle, put on a leather strap. They looked good. They shined.”

A soldier from West Memphis was the seventh member of the escort crew. He operated the radios, communicating with the commanders on campus, says Roger Vaughan, who rode in the rear Jeep with Mr. Van Patten, Carthel Mack Angel, and Terrell Jones. A Lt. Cook and Ray Dean Abbott rode in the first Jeep, he says, and a recruiting sergeant drove the station wagon.

Mr. Vaughan says, “One time we pulled over to the side for a bus. The kids had slingshots. They hit us. One time some kids threw some balloons out of a car. Nobody ever got hurt. We practiced and knew what to do in case something happened. They showed us how to avoid an ambush.”

Members of the One-Oh-One Airborne, as Mr. Vaughan refers to the 101st Airborne, stood shoulder to shoulder between the Little Rock Nine and the other students. “We’d get out, walk them up to the sidewalk, walk them to the steps. A captain took them on to the school. We went back to Camp Robinson, ate lunch, returned and waited for them to get out of school.”

Herman Wendell Van Patten was one of three surviving members of the six-soldier crew that escorted the nine students to and from school in September, l957.

Now the number is two.

He was 76.

Until five years ago, Mr. Van Patten’s children didn’t know of their father’s role in Arkansas history. “He didn’t like to brag about himself,” Jeff Van Patten said. “I knew he was in the National Guard. I never knew he had that duty.”


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