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Celebration of William Patterson’s life planned for Krannert Performing Arts Center on April 14

William Patterson

URBANA – A celebration of life has been scheduled in honor of William Patterson. The 58-year-old educator passed away unexpectedly earlier this week. The public is invited to remember the Urbana native and STEM educator on Sunday, April 14 from 3 to 7 p-m at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. In lieu of flowers, the family asks people to support Williams’ STEAM Genius NFP.

William Patterson grew up in the racially-segregated north end of Urbana. He proudly claimed he was from the ‘ghetto’ because he saw talent all around him.

One of the cultural movements from the ghettos of New York City found him in Central Illinois, as he recounted in a 2017 TEDTalk at the University of Illinois.

“1979. I remember when hip hop came to Champaign, and actually was in the halls of Urbana junior high school. This big kid named Beaumont, this white kid, he had this boombox radio… and he comes bumping down the halls. And he’s got ‘Rapper’s Delight’ on the box by the Sugar Hill gang. [It] straight up, disrupted the whole classroom, the whole hallway situation,” said Patterson. “I was stunned not only because the song was on fire… but the boombox the technology was ‘banging.’ I said, ‘I gotta do that’, ‘I have to do that’.”

Patterson recalled that he and his friends would run after school to local STEM programs.

“We’re in sixth and seventh grade, we run up after school. And we want to get to the PLATO terminals, because there’s a math program… I had no idea that the College of Engineering put that together. But because of that funding, because of National Science Foundation, being part of that, they put that technology in my community, and it made a difference.”

But in the 1980’s, federal funding for the programs were cut.

“I was used to having programs like the Douglass Center Drum Corps happening in my community. I was used to having movies in my park and dreaming about being in the drum corps, watching the movie, playing softball, doing all these things where I saw folks in my community rising beyond our marginalized spaces.”

Living in an under-resourced neighborhood left him angry and without direction.

“So, I started getting equipment any way that I could. But the way I was doing it was the wrong way. So two years after I graduated from high school, I went into penitentiary for two years.”

Childhood friend Tracy Parsons said Patterson began turning his life around while behind bars.

“And he vowed being in the jail cell that he was going to be a difference maker.”

After marrying his high school sweetheart Lori Gold, Patterson earned degree after degree while raising a growing family, eventually a Ph-D in Education Policy Studies from the University of Illinois.

But Parsons said he did not stop there.

“He’s the most creative person I know, and I’ve ever met,” said Parsons. “And so, when you talk about work today around STEM and STEAM, AI, artificial intelligence, I mean, he’s in the forefront of all of that work. And making sure that our community is connected to that work and the importance of the work and trying to hold the university accountable for making sure that these services support programs are in the community.”

Through the years, Patterson held leadership positions with the Bruce Nesbitt African American Culture Center, the Urban League and at the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club in Champaign… always finding a way to merge his love of technology, media, and community service.

Sonya Holley is the director of Human Resources for Student Affairs Administration at the U of I. More than 20 years ago, she worked with Patterson to give a voice to young Black women on local radio.

“We started working together on a show called all girls radio, which was geared towards middle school,” said Holley. “We had a few high school girls, teens, and preteens, where we talked about life events, and preparation for life as a young lady. And so, we were teaching the girls how to do a radio show, how to produce a radio show, how to write how to do research.”

Several years ago, Patterson brought a brightly colored rehabilitated school bus to neighborhoods to instruct children about careers in STEM using drones, race cars and hip-hop.

In December 2021, he explained how the idea was born at an Illinois Public Media News, Brews and Beatz event.

“Hip Hop Express exists because a vehicle showed up in my neighborhood when I was a kid in Douglas Park, by the name of disco rat that had a vehicle. And he played in the park and taught us how to DJ. So, we knew that there was a living example of that.

Rev. Willie Comer, Jr. witnessed how bringing science to a neighborhood made a difference.

“You can hope all day, but if you don’t have access to hope then you just have hope deferred. And see for me hope is last week when I had 30 kids from Edison outside racing RC cars. And you saw those kids when they won, like they won the championship at the state championship in basketball.”

Parsons said Patterson wanted children who grew up in the neighborhoods like he did to know their value. 

Picture of Reginald Hardwick

Reginald Hardwick

Reginald Hardwick is the News & Public Affairs Director for the Illinois Newsroom. He started at WILL in October of 2019 after serving as News Director for WKAR in East Lansing, Michigan. Previously, he was a news producer and manager at the NBC station in Dallas, where he won 7 Emmy awards. Born in Vietnam, Reginald is a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado. Email: rh14@illinois.edu Twitter: @RNewsWILL

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