Researching, a Morning With Bob Pate

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I met a man last week that had been dead since February 8, 1987. That’s right, twenty-five years deceased. This man, who most refer to as the River Man and I spent a little over two hours behind closed doors, alone, on the campus of Wilkes Community College last Tuesday. And, I wasn’t scared one bit.


Here’s how it all began. Over a year ago I was visiting with my friends, Bonnie and Dr. Hal Stuart. Dr. Stuart was asking me about my future writing endeavors, so I proceeded to tell him about a story that was forming in my mind. The setting was to be along the New River in Alleghany and Grayson counties.


Dr. Stuart asked me if I knew of a man named Bob Pate? I hadn’t. He told me I should go up to the Wilkes Community College Library and read about his oral histories. Okay, I thought, but why? Then he told me Bob Pate played a major role in stopping the New River from being dammed up by a hydroelectric power plant that was to have been built in the early 1970’s. Now I was interested. This was fitting right in with the novel I was soon to begin, called The River Keeper.


About 20,000 words into writing the river keeper’s story, I knew it was time to pay Bob Pate a visit. It seemed I couldn’t write another word until I researched the River Man.


The librarian at Wilkes Community College was most helpful. She brought me two videos, and about a dozen manila folders stuffed full of information about Bob Pate. For the next two hours I sat mesmerized by the River Man while local historian, Jay Anderson, was interviewing him. The interview took place a couple of years before Bob Pate’s death. Honestly, I could write a book about the River Man. We connected in so many ways. He was drawn to rivers and old people, and I am too.


I’ve always felt comfortable around my elders; though the older I get the harder it is to find someone older than me. But really, Bob Pate, who lived in Hamptonville, got his first taste of public recognition during an environmental battle while working to prevent the damming of the New River in 1976. Though he is probably best known for the 400-plus mile canoe trip that he led down the Yadkin River in 1982 from the W. Kerr Scott Dam near Wilkesboro to Georgetown, South Carolina. The trip led to the formation of the Yadkin River Trails Association and the creation of more than a dozen new parks and access sites along the river.


As the River Man drifted down the Yadkin he stopped and chatted with the locals, many who were getting along in years. Pate began to realize that soon these people would pass on and their life story would die right along with them. So, a dream formed in Pate’s mind. He would video these people and let them tell their stories. This is a quote from Pate, copied from the September 1985 issue of The State magazine. “The oral history is a spin-off of our river trips. It was meeting the people along the river and having to leave and know I might never see them again that got me to realizing how important these human treasures were and that we needed to preserve them.”


One of Pate’s favorite interviews was with Rebecca C. “Becky” Goforth of the Windy Gap section of Wilkes County. She had been a teacher at Shady Grove School in the early 1940’s. Here is some sound advice that Miss Becky left us with that we should abide today. “No one ought to teach school unless they can see the soul inside a child.” All I’ve got to say about that is, AMEN Miss Becky!


I also found that Bob Pate had interviewed my great uncle, Raymond Pruitt, from the Friendship community in Surry County. Pate states in the article that Raymond Pruitt is a true backwoodsman. Pruitt tells the time by the sun and doctors with herbs. He grows and eats ginseng. Uncle Raymond’s quote from The State magazine says, “They say it’ll (ginseng) make you hug the women.” Then he proceeds to tell Pate, “I hug them pretty good – especially the good-looking ones.” I’m told Uncle Raymond always was a lady’s man.


The story of Bob Pate and his expeditions are endless. He made over 150 videotapes of elderly people and events in Wilkes, Surry, Yadkin and Iredell Counties. Later he traveled to southern Mexico exploring rivers, and the people who lived along them.


In the interview with Jay Anderson Pate speaks often of his wife Dorothy, she was always with him on his river excursions. “Dorothy,” Pate says, “Would do the cooking and take care of all our medical needs. But, she made it perfectly clear from the beginning that if I turned her over in the canoe, the cooking would stop. I was real careful.”


I could go on and on about this man and his love of rivers, people, and the outdoors. Pate was a man that would much rather stand behind a camera than in front of it. I am so thankful for the two hours I spent with him and would suggest you take the time to do the same. There is so much to be learned from this quite, humble man. Here is a quote from Pate during the video interview. “Probably when I die everybody will be sad because I’m not going to leave anything.” Pate goes on to say, “I’m going to the river Jordan and whoever owns me can come get me there.”


Pate and his wife Dorothy received the Governor’s Award in 1983 for their volunteer work in protecting the environment. He literally gave his all for the preservation of our waters. His love for the river can be felt as he talks about his work. I’ll close with my favorite quote from Pate, “When you go out on the river, it is another world. It can take you on it’s back and ride you and show you some of the most beautiful things you have ever seen.” I feel exactly the same way when I’m out on the water.


Can a person be soul mates with a spirit? Yes, I believe they can, because I found mine with Bob Pate. Thank you River Man for sharing your life with me. And, thank you Dr. Hal Stuart for introducing us. You never know what might turn up when you’re doing a little research. There are treasures everywhere, if we’ll only seek them.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Montie Hamby March 6, 2012 at 7:42 am

Thank you for your writting ,Bob was a friend of mine and alway a Hero . He called me a brother River Rat .I miss him ,and his love and work on the Yadkin river

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