Reunion with teacher brings tears of joy

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UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS — A UI lecturer got a birthday present he wasn’t expecting. Will Patterson is a lecturer at the College of Engineering. He says he wouldn’t be where he is today had he not met an English teacher at Parkland when he was a student. He was reunited with her after nearly 30 years, thanks to Skype.

Gretchen Grove says, “English teachers don’t really get much honoring you know.”

But, in the case of Grove and one former student, that’s not the case. Will Patterson’s wife reintroduced him to his former teacher.

“Dr. Patterson, I would like you to re-meet Gretchen.”

As a late birthday present, Patterson was pleasantly surprised to see the teacher who helped turn his life around.

He says, “We’ve been looking for you. You are the long-lost English teacher.”

Patterson says they met at a time when he was lost. After four years at Urbana High School, he spent nearly two years in prison. But, living behind bars didn’t strip him of his desire for an education. 

“I knew that coming back home, that was going to be my number one priority,” he says. 

Patterson re-started life as a free man taking classes at Parkland College. His wife, Lori, says he wrote her hundreds of letters when he was in prison.

The messages were clear, but both agree his spelling and grammar needed a lot of work. That’s where Grove could help.  

Grove says, “I called every one of my classes Academic Survival English.”

“She was just so patient, so calming that you believed that you could do anything,” says Patterson.

Patterson only spent one semester at Parkland, but says her influence has guided him through a successful career. He went on to Loyola University, in New Orleans, and eventually got his PhD from the UI, where he now teaches.

He says, “Without that skill set that you planted in me, there’s just no way I would be accomplishing what I have. I mean, literally, no way.”

Grove says happily, “A student remembered what I had taught and put it to such remarkably good use. You know he’s got his own PhD. You don’t do that if you can’t write.”

Nowadays, the 79-year old lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and Patterson lives in Urbana with his wife and one of three kids.

Even though they’re 2,000 miles away, 30-years after that class, Patterson says she’s always been with him. With tears in his eyes, he finally gets to say thank you to the woman who changed his life.

Patterson says, “She has the same spirit, same presence.”

Grove jokingly adds, “I’m an old lady now!”

Patterson’s wife worked with people at Parkland to track down his old teacher. That wasn’t easy. She was looking for a teacher named Gretchen, but her real name is Margaret Grove. It took some digging, but it all worked out.

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