It has been a week since Maui firefighter and two-time Olympian Vernon Patao suffered the loss of irreplaceable weightlifting and Olympic memorabilia. Remarkably, the thieves returned his tools and fishing gear, after word of the theft was spread through social media, television news and word of mouth. As Melissa Tanji reported in The Maui News yesterday, the culprits even sent apologies via text and social media messages.
That article made me cry, not tears of grief for Vernon’s loss, but of pride in what he has achieved. In the last few paragraphs, Melissa wrote, ” . . . what hurts the most is not having his photos, memorabilia and certificates that the community and the late Dr. Masayoshi Nelson Yogi helped Patao obtain. Yogi was a dentist by trade but loved to lift weights, and it was in his Kahului garage where Patao learned to lift. Patao said the items he lost were going to be used to perpetuate the legacy of ‘Dr. Yogi.’ “
I knew and loved “Dr. Yogi” too, only I called him “Daddy.”
As a young man in the Navy and then dental school in Chicago, my father was a national champion and record holder in Olympic weightlifting and a nationally ranked wrestler as well. In 1960, he returned to Maui to establish his dental practice and our family, and eventually retired from competitive lifting. After a dozen or so years, he decided to resume weightlifting, just to get in shape. By 1975, he had enclosed our garage, installed a couple thousand dollars worth of barbells and racks and welcomed friends and acquaintances to work out with him.
Before long, high school football coaches were sending their players to Daddy’s gym for weight training. One of those teens was Val Patao, whose younger brother would tag along to watch, too shy to enter the garage. Barely over 100 pounds when my dad finally convinced him to join the workouts, Vernon discovered a natural ability and a sincere passion for the sport.
Over two decades, Daddy trained hundreds of young men and coached several of them all the way to national competitions, paying their airfare and expenses each year. Vernon’s first trip out of Hawaii was with my parents, to Akron, Ohio for the 1988 nationals and Olympic trials. Four years later, he earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the Barcelona games.
Some time after Vernon returned from the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, he and my father drifted apart. By late 1999, when Daddy was in the final stage of his battle with pancreatic cancer, he hadn’t seen or spoken with Vernon in a couple of years. Without his permission or knowledge, I reached out to Vernon to tell him the terrible news.
The next night, Mom was startled by the sight of an enormous fire engine pulling into our cul-de-sac — no sirens or lights on — and parking in front of the darkened garage. I came out the front door to see Vernon, in uniform, stepping down from the truck’s cab with the same shy smile I remembered from a decade before. He couldn’t stay long (“Gotta get the truck back to the station!”) but he returned for several visits over the next two months.
Daddy used to say that his mission as a coach was to build character along with strength. His number one rule was that his lifters show respect and humility at all times. While he took pleasure in his lifters’ accomplishments and medals, he cherished their personal growth and friendship most of all.
Yesterday I called Vernon to thank him for mentioning my father in the newspaper article. He told me, with pride and a bit of awe, that he’ll be taking five youngsters from his HI Performance Athletics gym to the Junior Nationals in Detroit at the end of this month. “Crazy, huh? Your dad took me to Detroit for my third nationals.”
Like Daddy did for more than 20 years, Vernon and his volunteer staff now gladly train and coach, free of charge, any girl or boy who is serious about Olympic lifting. For information, visit hiperformanceathletics.com.
He mused, “All that stuff, pictures, clippings, whatever: They meant a lot to me, but really, they’re just things. Carrying on Doc’s legacy, that’s what’s important.”
“And you know what,” I told him, “the love and the lessons he gave you can never be stolen.”
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every other Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.