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Champaign Urbana and University of Illinois communities mourn beloved educator William Patterson

William Patterson speaks at an IPM News Brews & Beatz event in December 2021.

This is a developing story. We will update as more tributes and statements about Patterson are made available.

URBANA – The Champaign Urbana community is mourning the death of an educator who worked tirelessly to bring STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education to under-resourced Black neighborhoods.

Friends told Illinois Public Media News, William Patterson, 58, passed away Tuesday while returning from a family visit in California. Patterson is survived by his wife, Lori, three children, a grandchild, and a sister. Memorial services are pending.

Patterson was a Clinical Associate Professor in the College of Fine & Applied Arts School of Music. He also served as an Adjunct Lecturer in the School of Information Sciences and the College of Engineering’s Technology Entrepreneurship Center.

University of Illinois Urbana Champaign Chancellor Robert Jones issued a statement regarding Patterson on Wednesday morning. 

“Dr. Patterson’s admirable career was devoted to empowering others to create their own stories of success and achievement,” said Jones. “His family and friends are first in the hearts of all of us at Illinois today.”

A native of Urbana, Patterson was scheduled to be recognized on Friday at a reception for distinguished alumni of Champaign and Urbana schools.

Patterson was nurtured by a supportive family. In a 2017 TEDTalk titled “The Ghetto Genius Paradigm,” Patterson said STEM and recreational programs he attended as a child were shutdown suddenly as a result of federal budget cuts. It left him angry and without direction in neighborhoods with fewer resources. Two years after graduating high school, he ended up serving prison time.

“I was used to having programs like the Douglas Center Drum Corp happening in my community… doing all these things where I saw folks in my community rising beyond our marginalized spaces,” said Patterson, who turned his life around, eventually earning a Ph.D. in Education Policy Studies from the University of Illinois.

“He’s the most creative person I know, and I’ve ever met,” said longtime friend Tracy Parsons. “When you talk about work today around STEM and STEAM, artificial intelligence, 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, supports, programs are in the community.”

Along the way, Patterson served in many positions around the Champaign-Urbana area, including associate director of the Bruce Nesbitt African American Cultural Center on the University of Illinois campus and Chief Teen Officer at the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club in Champaign. Parsons said Patterson wanted Black children in particular to know their value.

“He would always talk about kids who he was working with that. He was working and pushing hard, right. Raising expectations about who they could be, who they are, how gifted they were,” said Parsons.

One of the gifts Patterson brought to Black neighborhoods was a brightly colored rehabilitated school bus called the Hip Hop Xpress Double Dutch Boom Bus. It would regularly visit neighborhoods to show off remote control cars, drones and other technology. There was a studio on board.

“He wanted to take that to every neighborhood, in our community where kids and families might not have had the technology that they needed in their homes. The ‘Hip Hop Xpress’ could be that rolling space that was wired, provided technology, to the neighbors and to the neighborhoods. That’s just the type of person who was the creativity that he had in his passion for doing this work.”

Patterson was known by many nicknames including “Dr. P.” And he wanted to be a bridge for students between their neighborhoods and university.

“What Dr. P would always say is that ‘Tracy, we’ve got kids coming from all over the world fighting to get into the University of Illinois, and I’ve got a kid a mile away, that has no clue about what’s here in his or her own community’. And so that is what fueled him. I think he saw he saw himself or he would see himself, and so many of these kids,” said Parsons.

Patterson also had a connection with Illinois Public Media. He served on the Community Advisory board for Illinois Soul, the Black focused radio service from Illinois Public Media that launched in February 2024.

Patterson also created Illinois Public Media’s Youth Media Workshop with Kimberlie Kranich, who recently retired from her role as IPM’s Director of Community Content and Engagement. The workshop instructed local Black youth how to turn interviews with their elders into stories for WILL radio and television.

“He knew how to relate to just anyone, no matter the age, no matter the demographic, no matter the culture, no matter whoever the person was, he could connect with them, relate with them, and have exchange with him,” said Parsons.

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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