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Sean Kirst: In grief-stricken Sherman, hope for a 'forgiving community'

John Patterson believes that he understands Sherman, a little community in Chautauqua County, about 75 miles from Buffalo.

He arrived as a young man to take a job as a chemistry and math teacher at Sherman High School. He met his wife Sally about a half-century ago, when she worked as a secretary for the superintendent. The couple ran a family farm, with 100 cows and calves.

Once Patterson retired, he spent almost a decade as the village mayor. He resigned last spring, after a chain of surgeries that included amputation of one arm.

Patterson, 73, has endured years of pain. The experience taught him certain lessons. When he drops to his knees at night, he said, he asks God to reinforce a quality that Patterson maintains is central to the character of Sherman:

Forgiveness.

"With every bit of hope I have, I pray to God that no one will attack him personally," Patterson said, referring to Thomas Jadlowski. "He's already going to die 1,000 deaths every day. He's never going to be able to get away from this."

Jadlowski, 34, was charged Thursday with manslaughter in the death of Rosemary Billquist, 43. She was shot to death last week while walking her dogs, near her Sherman home. Jadlowski told Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office investigators he fired at her in the dusk, believing her to be a deer from about 200 yards away.

Hunter charged with more serious felony in fatal shooting of Chautauqua County woman

Patterson never met Jadlowski, and he isn't defending a shooting in the dark. He is a hunter, as are many residents of Sherman, a community of about 1,700. For anyone who hunts, there is a powerful responsibility, Patterson said, to "follow the letter of the law."

The felony charge carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. Patterson has faith the courts will come to a wise decision, that Jadlowski - if found guilty - will be sentenced to whatever penalty a judge feels he deserves.

Yet as tragedy brings a national spotlight to his community, Patterson follows the lead of the Rev. Steve Kilburn, who asked the congregation at Billquist's funeral to try and emulate Rosemary's life without becoming lost in anger, and even Jamie Billquist, a grieving husband, who told The New York Times that he's "not looking for vengeance. There's got to be some kind of lesson."

In the same way, Patterson is confident that Sherman, in honoring Rosemary, will find a way to forgive.

'It's such a tragedy': Hundreds attend funeral of woman shot by hunter

He appreciates first-hand the magnitude of the loss. He taught Rosemary. He also knew her father, the late Narbig Jafarjian. Patterson remembers him as a warm and giving man who once drove a backhoe 18 miles on country roads to help the Pattersons when the water lines broke down on their farm.

As for Rosemary, he described her as unforgettable, as someone who "brought a dose of happiness to everything."

It is impossible, Patterson said, to put words to what's been lost. He can close his eyes and envision where she sat in his classroom, three rows up and two seats over. He recalls how she'd write upbeat notes or pictures that she'd leave for him, after class.

"You remember the very good ones," he said.

It doesn't change his central point. Justice belongs to the courts.

"I don't think there's a cloud of vengeance hanging over this community," Patterson said.

He and Sally wanted to attend Rosemary's funeral Wednesday at the crowded Sherman Community Church. They couldn't go. John Patterson's take on forgiveness, and community, has been shaped by an ordeal that now stretches over decades.

The loss of his arm was one of 43 surgeries he went through over the years. Every time he went on the table, he'd pray for the courage shown by his father, a bombardier who survived many missions during World War II.

Those medical troubles began when Patterson was young. As a teenager in Corry, Pa., he and some buddies from the high school football team were trimming Christmas trees for a summer job. They started wrestling on the ground. John's back was torn up from branches and needles, which seemed like no big deal.

His back didn't heal. It became infected. His temperature climbed to 106. The doctors told him he had rheumatic fever, and he spent almost a year in the hospital.

Patterson survived. He built his career and then endured years of pain. After retiring as a teacher, he was elected four times to serve as mayor, a tenure that finally ended when he lost his arm and his immune system was compromised by his treatments.

Unable to safely attend public meetings, he felt he could no longer do justice to the office.

Patterson resigned. Isaac Gratto became acting mayor, and then Colleen Meeder won the November election.

Wednesday, after Rosemary's funeral, John and Sally Patterson stood at their front door as the long funeral procession rolled past their East Main Street home.

"We're Sherman people," said Sally, who left the village for a short time, as a young woman, to attend secretarial school in Buffalo. She never felt at home in the city. She'd walk 16 blocks to school every day because she found the bus ride chaotic and overwhelming.

She chose to return to Sherman. After she married John, he'd get out of bed at 2:30 a.m. to do the chores, to milk and care for 100 cows and calves, and by 6:30 a.m. he'd be at school to meet with generations of students who needed extra help.

Sherman Community Church, packed for the funeral of Rosemary Billquist: A community comes together. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

"A lot of these boys and girls did a man's work, shoveling manure and milking cows, before they ever got to school," he said. "They were very, very responsible, and they'd do that work and play sports and somehow do their homework, and they were most absolutely dedicated to everything they were doing."

That kind of character  will help carry the village through indescribable loss, Patterson said.

"This is a very caring community, and it can be a forgiving community," he said.

It is also coming off a particularly contentious decision. In 2016, as part of a larger movement toward streamlined government, the village voted on whether to dissolve itself and become part of the town of Sherman.

The final tally was a razor-thin 117-115 against a merger. John Patterson opposed consolidation. Local debate about the question was often fierce.

Even in death, he said, Rosemary Billquist found a way to transcend division. Bound by grief, she is mourned by one community, one Sherman. Patterson hopes that spirit will remain a guiding influence as Jadlowski's case moves on, amid human temptation to give in to bitterness.

"We need to forgive him," Patterson said. "That's the only thing we can do."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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