I attended Chapman grade school from 1964 – 1972. Tucked up along the base of Forest Park, the school was built in 1928. While attending, there were some great kids, encouraging teachers, and loving families that I met through the years.
In 1965, I was in second grade. Looking back on my childhood, one of the most intriguing and inspirational kids that I knew while in grade school had to have been Ralph Patterson. Ralph was crippled and lived down off of Northwest Thurman. He never would be able to walk like the rest of the kids; he acquired multiple sclerosis at birth. He had special aluminum crutches that would allow him to skip down the halls. Sometimes he wore braces on his legs. He could move as fast as most kids with the use of his crutches. His legs were like twigs, thin, dangling down from his waist. He never let his disability get in the way of what he wanted to accomplish in life. He had a ton of energy for his age.
Due to his disability, Ralph learned to sculpt his upper body into something that resembled a Greek god. His arms were huge, almost the size of most thighs. In his spare time, he taught himself how to do special exercises to make himself stronger. He could do a million sit ups and two million pushups. Ralph used his arms to hold his body up. He learned that he could use his crutches, always strengthening his arms.
Back in sixth grade, Ralph started to perform gymnastic tricks in the gym, out in Wallace Park, and anywhere he could get a crowd to watch his amazing athletic feats. An exercise consists of swing, strength and hold elements. He was amazing on the high bar. With the help of his friends, they would lift Ralph up off the floor, his crutches falling to the ground. He would grab the bar and swing forward and back. Slowly, his body would build up momentum moving him faster and faster, back and forth, until his momentum would carry him over the bar, repetition following repetition, following repetition. He would continue to perform on the bars until his hands became beet red. He would slow down and his friends would grab him and help him down to the ground. He would grab his crutches while people cheered. Kids would clap him on the back and rub his hair. Ralph would beam from the attention. He had made himself a great athlete.
“Great job Ralph!” exclaimed Mr. Radcliff the school gym teacher. Ralph would move on to the still rings. Again he would throw down his crutches. His friends would lift him up while he grabbed both of the rings. Ralph could hold his body straight as could be, performing a maneuver called the iron cross. He would perform tricks that older kids in high school could only imagine trying to do. He dazzled the crowds during lunch and after school. People would gather from all around to watch as he would swing through the air with little to no effort. It was really an amazing sight.
Ralph was about five-foot-six and weighed around one hundred and thirty pounds. His parents were poor and they never acknowledged any of his athletic accomplishments. I doubt if they gave him much support.
I think our P.E. teacher, Mr. Radcliff, encouraged Ralph to pursue his talents. Stan Radcliff wore big thick black glasses. He was in great shape for his age. He wore white pants, white t-shirts and white tennis shoes, kind of like Mr. Clean. He was a disciplinarian, usually was in charge of punishing kids if they got out of hand. He carried a big paddle with small holes that would really sting if you got out of line. Nobody wanted to face the paddle.
Mr. Radcliff watched after Ralph, knew he was underprivileged, and tried to encourage him to participate in gymnastics. Stan would put out gymnastic equipment on the gym floor after school. Ralph took advantage of this kind gesture. He would practice for a couple hours after school, trying to push himself to be the best he could be. He would practice on the high bar, the still rings, and parallel bars. Around 5:00 p.m., Ralph would carry himself back home through the rain and darkness.
In the summer, Ralph would hang out at Wallace Park. Back in the late sixties the park had a high bar. He spent hours practicing in the park. Families and kids would gather to watch him practice. Several kids would try to imitate the routines that Ralph would perform. He slowly became a local legend.
In seventh grade, Ralph moved. I don’t know where he went. He was an inspiration to the kids in the neighborhood and one of the first kids that I knew that overcame adversity from both economic hardship and physical disability. He was one of the first great athletes that I can remember out of Northwest Portland. Needless to say he was an inspiration.