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To Pat Cole: 'So we'll go no more a roving, so late into the night'

Pat Cole, chief of staff of the City of Fairbanks, shortly before undergoing heart transplant surgery early Monday, Nov 18, 2013 at the University of Washington Medical Center. Courtesy Judy Cole

FAIRBANKS -- My brother, Patrick Cole, the longtime chief of staff of the City of Fairbanks, died Thursday of complications following a heart transplant operation at the University of Washington Medical Center.

He had been in Seattle since the summer, preparing for a transplant made necessary by the congenital heart problems that nearly did him in last spring.

Pat had continued working part-time at the City of Fairbanks as his health allowed, taking part in meetings via the Internet and phone, writing ordinances and labor contracts, tasks that struck him as endlessly fascinating.

On Sunday at noon, he sent the latest draft of a proposed contract with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to City Attorney Paul Ewers for review, saying he had just been notified of a possible transplant.

“If it goes ahead, I’ll be out of action for a while,” he said.

Childhood surgery and a heart-valve operation as an adult had left him with scarring that made the transplant a high-risk procedure, but he had studied the pros and cons, as he always did, and decided to go forward. In July, he had a mechanical pump inserted in his heart, powered by rechargeable batteries about the size of a paperback book.

Always quiet and calm, he was a positive influence on those around him, even at the end. This was true not only when he grappled with difficult policy questions at the city, but also when dealing with his relatives.

He was a born diplomat. He had the habit of listening before speaking, unlike some of us -- and thinking back now I understand why he briefly considered becoming a Catholic priest as a young teen-ager. Pat would have made a great counselor or judge, but his true vocation in life was public administration, working in the background to help make Fairbanks a better place.

Among the many awards he received over the years, he took the greatest pride in being named the 2012 recipient of the Vic Fischer Leadership Award by the Alaska Municipal League. That Fischer, one of the creators of local government in Alaska, was there to present the award in honor of Pat's statewide contributions, made the ceremony all the more meaningful.

In their nomination letter, Ewers and Fairbanks Mayor Jerry Cleworth said it “might be easier to list the positions Patrick has not held in local government,” but they summarized his career of 35 years.

At different times he served as assistant borough attorney, borough chief of staff, deputy city attorney, deputy city manager, city manager and city chief of staff. He worked quietly under 10 borough and city mayors of all persuasions, concentrating on the inner workings of local government.

As Fairbanks city manager in 1995, Pat oversaw the move of city offices into the old Main School building, a major achievement. The building had been abandoned by the school district, and there were plenty of skeptics who thought it could not be saved, but over time, that move has proven to be a good one. However, you would never catch him taking credit for that or anything else.

“Patrick’s hard work here in Fairbanks and statewide often goes unrecognized, in large part because of his style. Never one to draw attention to himself, Patrick is more likely to credit and praise others or to emphasize that a project was a group effort,” Ewers and Cleworth said in their letter about the Vic Fischer award.

Another former city leader, Rep. Steve Thompson, put it this way in 2007 after six years as mayor: "I have worked with many people in my 42 years in Alaska and I must say that you are by far the best of the best. Your dedication to the well-being of the City of Fairbanks is above and beyond most people's comprehension."

We can trace the development of Pat's management skills back to his childhood, starting on the farm in Pennsylvania, where he was the oldest of six.

"Our mother died at a young age, so we were forced to be very reliant upon each other," he said in an interview a couple of years ago. "We were kind of an unruly crowd, but we were, I think, a unit."

As part of the unruly crowd, whenever I needed good advice, I could always get it from Pat, the unit leader.

It was because of him that my twin brother and I moved to Fairbanks in the 1970s. He introduced me to the tradition of building-your-own cabin in Alaska. He had constructed several, one of which was a 6-foot-by-10-foot beauty that was easy to heat. He preferred building on swampland because it was cheap, though breakup was always an adventure in the wetlands.

Generous, but frugal, he told me to keep everything divisible by four to make the most efficient use of plywood, which is why my wife and I built a 16-by-24 cabin.

He built his first cabin shortly after arriving in 1970 as a 20-year-old transfer student at the University of Alaska. It says something about his immediate attachment that the first person he met in Fairbanks, hitchhiker David Behr, became a friend for life.

Pat had started college at Temple University in Philadelphia, but after getting mugged he had to get as far away as possible. In the alphabetical search of college catalogs that followed, he skipped Alabama and settled on Alaska.

He began work at the borough in the library and resumed his studies by earning a law degree form the University of Idaho. He worked for Jim Nordale in the borough attorney's office, his first mentor in the legal world.

One of his strengths was his inclination to look at the bright side of things, regardless of the circumstances. "The past few months reminded me how caring and supportive our brothers and sisters are, despite my flaws and shortcomings," he wrote to all of us a few weeks ago.

One of his nephews said Thursday that Pat was a role model for our extended family in Alaska, which was obvious at family gatherings.

"There's a lot of talkers in our family, but most every time he spoke, I remember that everyone listened, even if he was just telling a joke," Connor wrote shortly before Pat's death.

"It's an example I think of often when I'm talking with other people. Now, that we need to say goodbye, I just wish I could communicate how much that continues to mean to me, how grateful I am to have had him around us growing up, and how terrible it is that he will leave."

A lot of us feel that way.

My twin brother, Terrence, said Pat was always the calm in the storm, the steady hand on the wheel.

“When he lived in the swamp he claimed to have always liked swamps; when he moved to Cleary Summit, he claimed to enjoy the constant wind. And despite having been dealt a terrible hand in life with a bum heart, he never felt sorry for himself, never ever complained,” Terrence said.

All day Thursday, he said, he thought of lines from Byron:

So, we’ll go no more a-roving
  So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
  And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
  And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
  And love itself have rest.

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcole