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Sunday, March 3, 2024
Dan Patterson: The Energizer Bunny of Canadian colleges

Dr. Dan is a perfect nickname for Dan Patterson, the retiring president of Niagara College.

That’s what his colleagues and students often call him as he walks the halls of the campus, constantly searching for opportunities to make it better.

As a moniker, Dr. Dan perfectly embodies the balance between the familiar, personal, affable, leader of what is arguably one of the best of Canada’s 300 community colleges and the school’s professional, tenacious and creative driver.

Dr. Dan. It works.

Everyone thinks Dr. Dan, who just turned 71, comes by his outgoing, personal style effortlessly. Not true, says the 25-five-year veteran of applied academia. “I actually do so much homework to prepare. I’m somebody that needs to be thoughtful. I am not spontaneous, although many people think I am.”

Patterson’s comfortable office overlooks the courtyard of the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus on Glendale Avenue. It’s his domain. From here, he watches pridefully over much of the product of his illustrious career.

But the building itself almost didn’t happen. It was just after Patterson assumed the presidency. The province had committed millions of dollars to build the new Glendale campus. And then a new cost-cutting government was elected. The college’s dream disappeared with a snap of political fingers.

Patterson remembers: “The campus was considered the most deteriorated in the province. There was no money. It was very discouraging times.”

In characteristic style, Dr. Dan got to work.

“People don’t see how tenacious (Dan) can be,” says John Scott, the college’s board chair and a board member, since 2014.

Scott, an experienced business leader who has seen Patterson in action for a decade, explains how Patterson got the project back on track: “Dan gets in his car and goes to Toronto and says, ‘I’m not accepting this.’ He gets (then-premier) Mike Harris down here and hauls him through the old Welland Vale campus. Harris couldn’t believe how bad it was. And they restored the funding. He did that by himself. An incredible achievement.”

That same tenacity surfaced a few years later, according to Raymond Sarkis, the college’s intercollegiate athletics co-ordinator. Sarkis, who started in 1978, is the college’s longest-serving employee.

“We have one of the best post-secondary athletic facilities in Canada,” says Sarkis. “That was Dan’s doing.

“I was lobbying for a new floor for the gymnasium in Welland. But I couldn’t get any traction from the powers that be. So, I invited Dan to visit the old gym. I got him to roll a basketball the length of the court. Well, the ball went up and down and side to side. He got the point. Lo and behold, we got one of the best floors you could ever have.”

Patterson attributes his approach to his work to three factors: his parents, his high school teachers and his wife of 40 years, Saundra.

He grew up in Toronto. His father was a milkman working two jobs so his family could have a good life.

“He had a wonderfully strong work ethic,” says Patterson. He believes his mother instilled in him warmth and an outgoing nature.

The second building block was his high school education under the guidance of the Basilian Fathers, whose motto was “Teach me Goodness, Discipline and Knowledge.” It’s a credo with which he challenges all his ventures.

Patterson started his working career in the federal government, at the Ministry of Industry and Trade. It was in Ottawa that he met Saundra.

“Saundra worked at the Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs,” he reminisces. “She introduced me to skating on the canal and snowshoes. She is my strongest mentor, my first mentor. She understands the complexities of working in large, complex organizations.

“Those three pillars have formed the values of my 45 years of public service.”

Patterson also has a credo he puts to work every day: “Education, at its best, is the application of knowledge.”

“Of course, the students are at the centre of who we are.”

But, he maintains, industry partnerships are the key to the college’s growth and vitality.

He points to the college’s venture into alcohol — first winemaking, then brewing and, finally, a distillery. Those initiatives started with the industries coming to us and saying, “Can you help us.”

“What makes us different is that our programs are not just about the technical aspects of the businesses. We go well beyond technical learning, providing real-life experience in running businesses profitably.

“Through this process, we believe we’ve found the secret sauce for anticipating labour market needs, not only for today but also for tomorrow.”

Patterson’s decision to retire took a lot of thought. “I live and breathe Niagara College. I’m kind of the Energizer Bunny of the college scene. Some say I bleed blue.

“My energy is high. The college is in a good financial situation. We’ve got a great team. Now’s the time, when you are at the top of your game, to get new leadership.”

As to the future, he admits he’s caught in the middle, wanting to pause to learn how to relax and just enjoy life. At the same time, he wants to continue to contribute and give back.

“I’m going to be incoming chair of the Ontario Centres of Excellence, a provincial agency that energizes academia and business to develop ‘mind to market’ opportunities. I’m going to continue working with Colleges and Institutes Canada, advocating for increased recognition of the value of colleges in our communities.

“And I’m also looking forward to providing mentoring services for new college leaders at colleges across the country.”

Dr. Dan’s last official day at Niagara College will be June 30, next year.

And when he gets the phone call from the new president, asking for advice, he’ll have his answer ready:

“Be visible in the community — community colleges have a leadership role to play. Make sure Niagara College’s voice and resources are brought to the table.

“Get to know the Niagara landscape. It is unique. It is complex. You must earn your place.

“Keep it welcoming. And passionate and trailblazing.”

Words of wisdom.

John Scott sums up what Dr. Dan has brought to Niagara College over the last 25 years:

“I have this massive respect for the guy. Unique combination. On the one hand, he’s the nicest guy and on the other, he’s driven by his values and vision. He’s tenacious. He has charisma. It’s just amazing.”

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