More Than A Spouse: Remembering Joanne Holbrook Patton

Jonanne Holbrook Patton Article-550x350

“If I were building a Hall of Fame of Army spouses, I’d name the museum after Joanne.” – Joyce Raezer, former NMFA Executive Director

Joanne Holbrook Patton was a military kid who grew up to become a military spouse. She was a lifelong advocate, community champion, philanthropist, and devoted NMFA leader, Board member, volunteer, and friend. She died in September at 92 but lived a life that will inspire us for years to come.

“She was our Encourager-in-Chief,” remembered Joyce Raezer, former NMFA Executive Director and a military spouse who, similarly, continues to inspire us every day. “She was the most gracious person I’ve ever met, and her passion always came through for her causes – NMFA, military families, the Army, Sweet Briar College, her town, her farm… In everything she did, she showed how much she cared.”

Joanne cared deeply for the Army. She came from five generations of military officers, including the Army’s first and last Chief’s of Calvary. Her own father, General Willard A. Holbrook, Jr., served as Master of the Sword at United States Military Academy when she was a little girl and later with the 11th Armored Division, where he accepted the surrender of Linz, Austria, from the Nazis in 1945.

Joanne loved the Army and took pride in her family’s long history of service. For Joanne, to care about something meant to not just like it the way it is today, but to love the way it is today, and to love what it could be in the future.

“When she was telling you to do more, she’d do it in a way that conveyed her love for what you were already doing,” Joyce remembered. “Her visits to NMFA were, ‘This is wonderful! Oh, you’re doing this! And that! I love what you’re doing, but have you thought about…? What are you doing about…?’ It was always, ‘I love you guys, but couldn’t you do a little bit more?’ And then: ‘How can I help you?’”

In 2005, not long after we first branched out of advocacy and launched our own programs, NMFA renamed its scholarship program after Joanne. She called on us to do better, and with our scholarships, we help thousands of military spouses do better, too. Since its inception, NMFA’s Joanne Holbrook Patton Scholarship Program has given over $8 million to 8,260 military spouses working to advance their careers and strengthen their families.

Joanne always cared about the families.

When the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, Joanne brought her passion to supporting the Guardsmen and Reservists in Massachusetts whose service was almost invisible to their surrounding communities. At the time, there was no real structure for family support for them – the local veteran officer who worked for the state or maybe the county, but no one out there saying: What about your family? How can we help?

NMFA asks that question, and so did Joanne. She encouraged communities to embrace military families – and that meant finding them first. She called on local leaders to find them, tell them they matter, and then offer the support they needed – and she heeded her own advice and did it, too.

One day each fall, she’d open up her family farm to military and veteran families. She’d host a picnic and celebration in their honor, ensuring they understood their commitment to America was seen and their sacrifices weren’t invisible.

“Joanne said, ‘I’m not sure what I can do, but I’m going to help, to support them, to let them know somebody cares,’” Joyce said. “And that was just Joanne.”

That was just Joanne.

Joyce Raezer and Joanne Holbrook Patton

Joanne Patton and Joyce Raezer captured at Green Meadows Farm, in what would be their last picture together.

When you work at NMFA, you’re always following in the footsteps of giants.

Before us are fifty-four years of military spouses determined to make a difference – none of whom knew our names when they got to work, but all of whom knew we’d be coming – and worked tirelessly to make military life better for us today.

Every room at NMFA holds their legacy – our foremothers, the defining women who set the bar and push us forward. No bar could be higher than that set for us by Joanne Patton.

On a personal note, I never met Joanne. I came to NMFA as a fully remote worker not long before she moved to a senior living home in Darien, Connecticut, where she passed away peacefully in September. But there were two ways to write our memoriam to her – a dry write-up of everything she did that you, reader, might find remarkable, because she was unquestionably remarkable, or to let it be a proper remembrance with the way people talk about her shining through.

Like most military spouses – seemingly, Joanne included; before she said yes to a proposal from one young Captain Patton, she was a young woman in New York City with gifts for both journalism and musical theater – I harbored professional dreams of my own before a young Marine swept me off my feet. You know what comes next because it probably happened to you, too: I spent the next twelve years trying to take the skills I have and had intended to use in one way and instead to turn them into a military-life-friendly career, if that even exists. I wanted to write obituaries. It’s a funny thing to want to write about, but that was where my heart was called – until it was called into a courthouse ceremony in Virginia Beach.

The thing about most obituaries is that they usually just talk about the meat and potatoes of a person’s life and those left behind. But Joanne had an amazing life, and while it was surely just as full as meat and potatoes as ours are, hers is also the kind that can inspire us to live better, live more, and live for others. If we have our finite time on earth to make a difference and build a legacy, Joanne used it to encourage, love, strengthen, and inspire – and the people I turn to today for inspiration (including our own Joyce), were all inspired by Joanne.

Another colleague with whom I spoke said she only met her a few times, but immediately started smiling as she shared what she remembered – A person, she said, who could walk into any room and act like she’s more important than us but never did.

Instead, she cared.

Joanne’s life is filled with all the regular stuff yours and mine are – babies through deployments, special needs parenting, family responsibilities and our own dreams, all the things of real life. She knew what it was like to be us. She did the work to make our lives better, long before we were even here. And she inspired everyone around her to keep up the good work, too.

Joanne’s legacy doesn’t fit on paper or in this little corner of the internet we call our own. Instead, it rests in our actions – the work we keep doing, the way we welcome each other in our military family community, the way we make sure that everyone has a seat at the table and invitation to the picnic. We’re doing good work, friends. We really are. But what can we do better? That’s her legacy, and it’s our job to keep it living.

By: Raleigh Smith Duttweiler, NMFA Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives