He Was Bullied in High School and Never Wanted to Relive Those Days—Then His Classmates Convinced Him to Go to the Reunion
It's never too late to show someone kindness.
From The Oregonian
The scars that Pat Pribble carried through life were formed nearly 50 years ago, inflicted by fellow students in Woodland, Washington, who picked on him because he was different.
Pat’s parents had held him back in the fourth grade, so he ended up in the same class as his younger brother, Leo. Forever the oldest kid in the class, Pat tried to fit in. He played sports. He went on dates. But he was always just not good enough for this; just not smart enough for that. Pat Pribble was a target.
A trek through the high school years is filled with land mines. Bullies master the uncanny ability to find weakness, inflicting emotional pain with the precision of a surgeon with a scalpel in hand. Allies vanish, as being popular becomes more seductive than being loyal.
After graduating, Pat drifted and lost his way. He was homeless for a stretch, and he never married or had children. He never had a career, only a series of jobs. Now 65, he lives in a studio apartment in southeast Portland, Oregon, with his dog, getting by on Social Security.
From a distance, with his long gray hair and beard, Pat appears tough, the kind of man you might cross the street to avoid. It is a facade. To talk with him reveals a gentle side. He speaks quietly, measuring his words, careful not to reveal what he is thinking and feeling, as those were the very things others once seized upon to mock him.
Leo said his older brother always stood up for him. As a self-described closeted gay man in a small town, Leo said he kept his “head in the sand.”
“People sensed something about me,” Leo said last year. “They called me names; Pat got into fights defending me.”
After high school, Leo moved to Portland and then to Hawaii, where two big life changes occurred: He began his career as a floral designer, and he fell in love. After 15 years, Leo and his partner moved to San Francisco. They had been together for 36 years when the love of Leo’s life died.
In 2010, at his high school class’s 35th reunion, Leo ran into Jim Carey, who asked about Pat. Leo told Carey that Pat wasn’t there because he’d been picked on in school. “That bothered me,” says Carey. Decades later, one incident remained fresh.
“All of us would get in our cars and party down by the river,” Carey recalls. “Pat was there with a date and got his car stuck in the sand. A group of guys grabbed the side of his car and flipped it over with Pat and his date inside. He was begging for them to turn it over. They just kept laughing at him. Finally they pushed it right side up.” Carey falls silent. “Pat had it rougher than the rest of us.”
Last November, as Carey planned for the 45th reunion in 2021—postponed a year because of the pandemic—he decided to personally invite Pat. With a bit of research, he found his number and called. Pat answered.
“Even after all these years,” says Carey, “the mind remembers a voice. It was Pat.” As the two men caught up on each other’s lives, Carey learned that Leo had terminal brain cancer and had only months to live.
Days later, Carey called Leo. They talked for nearly two hours. “That was a sad call,” says Carey. “I was saying hello and goodbye to Leo at the same time.”
At the end, Carey asked whether there were any classmates Leo might like to hear from. Leo supplied a list of names. Carey tracked down the men and asked them to call Leo. He then made one more request—everyone should also call Pat. And so they did.
“We told each other stories,” Pat says of his conversations. “I talked about some of the lesser things, and the good things too. The love and kindness caught me unawares.”
Bruce Whitmire, now a dairy farmer, was one of the classmates who made the calls to Leo and Pat. Pat told him he’d been putting money aside each week to buy a bus ticket to San Francisco to visit Leo one last time before he died. Two weeks later, Whitmire called back to say he didn’t want him to “take a damn bus.” He bought Pat a first-class flight to San Francisco and said he would also be sending him “walking around money,” enough to do whatever he wished with his brother.
The Pribble brothers were touched. “Never underestimate people,” said Leo. “We’re all different now than when we were kids.”
Leo passed away this past January. His former classmates had promised him that after he was gone they wouldn’t lose track of Pat, and they have kept that promise. Every week, one or more of them call Pat to see how he’s doing.
Healing wounds from the past has allowed Pat to look to the future. “I’ll be at the next reunion,” he says. “These guys …” He pauses, stifling tears. “Let’s just say that everyone needs people like these guys in their lives.”