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COMMON SENSE WINS ONE; BLIND VENDOR KEEPS JOB

MAYBE THE collective heart of the state's bureaucracy is, indeed, not as tiny as a seed.

Maybe, tucked into a small corner amidst the maze of commissioners and deputies, red tape and rigidity, there is a dollop of compassion.

Or, at least, there's someone smart enough to know that firing a nearly blind newsstand operator for calling in sick is not sparkling public relations.

In any event, Bob Van Patten was behind the counter Thursday. And that's where he'll be for the foreseeable future, dispensing candy and pop at the Mahoney State Office Building on Court Street.

"It has all passed over," said a relieved Van Patten, who was told Tuesday he'd be fired. "It's such a load off me. The last day-and-a-half was pretty bad."

Yes, there is a God. Or, at least, someone with a smattering of common sense in the state office of the Commission for the Blind.

Van Patten is 68 years old. He makes about $11,000 a year. He gets up at six every weekday morning, takes the bus from South Buffalo and opens the stand by 7:15. He's well-liked by people in the building, many of whom he knows by name. One of them started a petition protesting his removal, which garnered 80 signatures in less than a day.

"He's the one bright light in this building," said one employee. "The guy just treats everybody the same, nice way."

When Van Patten was out sick with a virus Monday and Tuesday, no one complained.

"It was no inconvenience for us," said state worker Brenda McGillicuddy. "There's a pop machine in the basement and we can go across the street for snacks. The newspapers were left outside, and Bob knows he can trust people for the money."

Van Patten ran afoul of the bureaucracy when he didn't call in a substitute, despite extenuating circumstances -- a 102.5 fever that nailed him to the bed. Tuesday, his supervisor at the local office of the Commission for the Blind told him a "vending specialist" would be by Thursday to take inventory. Van Patten would be reimbursed for his stock and let go.

When the vending specialist showed up Thursday morning, some 30 state office workers were at the stand to see what would happen.

What happened was, well, nothing.

"He just told me to forget all about it, it had passed over," said Van Patten. "I was really stunned."

When Van Patten relayed the good news to the waiting throng, a cheer erupted.

If there's any silver lining to the ridiculous episode, it's the way people fought for Van Patten -- with petitions, faxes and phone calls to Albany. Among those calling in his behalf was Federal Judge William Skretny.

In the end, humanity triumphed over bureaucracy, common sense over absurdity.

"I always kind of felt people appreciated me," said Van Patten. "I had no idea how much."

All's well that ends well. But why did this episode even start? And what would have happened had state workers not rallied to his defense, or the media gotten wind of it?

Terrance McGrath of the state Social Services office blamed it on a "misunderstanding."

Maybe the mini-drama will prompt some changes. Such as having a clerk in the local office line up a replacement when any of the city's visually handicapped newsstand operators calls in. Why should a sick employee have to do it?

The bottom line: A man who does a good job, still has a job. And an understanding of what being a nice guy means to the people he deals with.

Welcome back, Bob. A lot of folks would've hated to see you go.

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