Judy Rae

Bill Patton – Decathlon Man

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Bill and Sandra Patton at their Rancho Palos Verdes home, situated on two acres of ocean bluffs. Photo by Tony La Bruno

by Rachel Reeves

Photos of Sandra and Bill Patton with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and General Colin Powell rest on the grand piano in the great room of the Pattons’ Rancho Palos Verdes home. Other photos include Sandra’s 50th birthday party, hosted by Princess Diana’s father at Althorp Castle.

The photos attest to Bill Patton’s executive success with companies such as Unisys and his position on nearly two dozen boards of directors. 

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But the photo Patton, now 83, takes the most pride in is one commemorating his help in founding the U.S. Academic Decathlon, an academic competition for high school students around the world. The photograph of the Pattons with George and Barbara Bush was taken at a luncheon honoring Bill Patton’s “significant contribution to children’s education” at the then-vice president’s Washington D.C. residence.

“What else can you say?” Patton recalled during a recent interview at his home. “It was amazing.”

Patton was the first president of  the U.S. Academic Decathlon, now known as AcDec. Though his involvement in the competition ended long ago, Patton takes pride in its international success. 

“Eventually our names will be forgotten, but that’s okay,” Patton said of the competition’s founders. “The important thing is now it’s a real program.”

The longtime Palos Verdes resident came to California from Missouri as a young man so he could be near the ocean. He attended Santa Monica City College, then pursued degrees in petroleum engineering and math at the Missouri School of Science & Technology. He then received an MBA from Harvard. After Harvard he headed back to the West Coast, where he would remain even through the years he commuted to an office in Pennsylvania.

In the late ‘70s,  Patton joined the committee responsible for organizing the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Also on the committee was the late Dr. Robert Peterson, a man Patton remembers as “an educational visionary.”

Dr. Peterson’s vision for an Academic Decathlon had been conceived 60 years earlier, in a prison camp in Germany. A history of the competition, published in 2017 by the U.S. Academic Decathlon, recounts,  “During World War II, a young B-17 pilot was shot down over Italy and imprisoned in Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany. During his 17 months of imprisonment, he had plenty of time to reflect on several topics. One of them was education.”

In internment it occurred to Dr. Peterson that academic competitions would inspire average students to engage more fully and excellent students to learn better social skills and become more well-rounded. Twenty years later, in the ‘60s, Dr. Peterson was working as an elementary school principal in Santa Ana. As part of his campaign to be elected Superintendent of Schools for Orange County, Dr. Peterson announced his intention to begin an academic decathlon program.

The first competition was held after he was elected, in November 1968 at Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove. Ten years later, Dr. Peterson met with L.A. district officials about rolling out the program in an urban setting.

Then, while serving on the Olympic Organizing Committee, Dr. Peterson met Bill Patton and Phil Bardos. After some discussion, the trio made a play for an academic discipline to feature in the Olympics. When their proposal was rejected they resigned from the Olympic Committee to work on expanding what Dr. Peterson was doing in Orange County.

Bill and Sandra Patton with Barbara and then-Vice President George Bush following a luncheon at the Bushes’ home, honoring Bill Patton for is founding of the Academic Decathlon. Photo courtesy of the Patton family

Bardos became CEO of the U.S. Academic Decathlon and Patton became president, a title he would hold for two terms. At the time, Patton was a vice president at Honeywell.  The first board of directors worked to find money, plan programs, and source experts to write the tests. 

“I think there were two things that motivated me,” Patton said. “First of all, academic excellence is something that people should be interested in — that’s what causes your society to grow. Second, Robert Peterson was a fantastic person. He made it easy to want to help him create his vision.”

It was decided that the competition would consist of seven objective, multiple choice tests, two subjective performance events, and an essay. Winners of competitions against other high schools in the city and county would go on to the statewide championships. One winner from each state would then participate in the national competition, held each year in Los Angeles. The terms of the competition were also changed: teams had to include two “A” students, two “B” students, and two “C” students. 

“There are people who are masters in science but can’t write well — they deserve to compete,” Patton said. “There are Pulitzer Prize-winning authors who can’t do math — they deserve to compete, too. Maybe the SATs aren’t the best indicator of someone’s potential success. We wanted this program to demonstrate that not only are ‘A’ students prone to be successful, but any student can be successful depending on their area of specialization.”

For a board populated by business people, encouraging specialized strengths made sense.

“Look,” Patton said. “Einstein didn’t even take English. When I was retiring as president of the board, the first thing I said was thank God they didn’t know my high school grades when they asked me to participate in this great program.”

The first national competition was held in 1982. During that event, won by Palo Alto High School, a Nevada student was recognized as the first “C” student to record a perfect score. His essay was published in the L.A. Times.

Over the years, word spread about the national competition, held at Loyola Marymount University. Corporate sponsorship came from organizations such as World Book Encyclopedia, Honda, IBM, and Northrop Corporation.

Patton became a senior executive at Unisys, and with 40,000 employees he no longer had time to nurture AcDec. But the seed he had helped plant continued to grow.

By 1991, 41 states were participating. The U.S. Academic Decathlon logo was affixed to the Orbiter Atlantis and the Orbiter Discovery that year.

An international competition that featured teams from Canada, Mexico, Korea and New Zealand was held in 1984 in Los Angeles. Years later, in 2015, the Academic Decathlon would hold its first international competition in Shanghai, China.

“Growth comes from whether an idea is good,” Patton said. “This was great. It was tremendous, and that’s why it grew. It’s like a garden: you plant something and it’s a wonderful area for that particular type of plant to grow, it grows well and the seeds fall to the ground and all of a sudden you get two, four, sixteen, and so on. That’s what happened. It grew itself.”

Dr. Alex Cherniss, Superintendent of Schools for Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, said he truly appreciates the innovative vision of AcDec’s founders because the program has had a positive impact on so many students. News outlets have estimated more than a million students have been inspired by the competition to excel.

Patton sometimes watches the whales swimming past his home and thinks about his achievements, which span the world and fill a three-page resume. His mind returns often to AcDec.

“I’ve done a lot of things that I’ve been recognized for,” he said. “Ain’t none of them important compared to the Academic Decathlon.”

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