BLOOMINGTON - It is possible to work a lifetime and wonder if you've made a difference.
It will be impossible for 53-year-old twins Tom and Den Patten to have any doubt.
That is especially true after more than 70 of their current and former athletes gathered Sunday at a surprise party to recognize their 20-plus years of high school cross country and track coaching in Unit 5.
"It's too bad other people don't get the chance to have people tell them 'You didn't totally screw up. You did all right,' " quipped Tom, who was visibly moved by the turnout.
The athletes, some from as far away as Denver and Alexandria, Va., indicated the Pattens have done way better than just all right.
"They shaped who I am today," said 1990 Normal Community High School graduate Tracy (Mueller) Pujia, a two-time Intercity cross country champion. "They were incredibly passionate about running and they made everyone else become passionate as well. It's not an easy thing to inspire people and they most certainly did."
In June the Unit 5 school board decided that Den Patten would not return to Normal West for a 14th year as head cross country coach, a position that went to a certified teacher within the Unit 5 school district. Den Patten teaches business at Illinois State University, and according to the district's contract and the Illinois High School Association, district teachers hold preference over non-staff.
Tom is entering his 24th year as NCHS cross country coach and 14th year as track coach. Den was his assistant for 10 years before serving Normal West as head cross country coach for 13 years and assistant track coach for 11 years. This coming school year, Tom will again have Den as his assistant coach.
Elliott Nott, who won the 1993 Class AA state 1,600-meter title for NCHS, credits the Pattens for treating each runner the same.
"My freshman year I was the second-to-slowest guy on the team," said Nott, who now coaches at North Park University. "They gave me encouragement. When I was best in state, they still treated me the same."
Todd Christiansen, a member of NCHS' first state-qualifying cross country team in 1988, remembers the Pattens' positivism.
"They took that hour (of practice) every day to put something positive in our lives," he said.
The Pattens aren't like other coaches, agreed 2005 Pantagraph Honor Roll Track Meet 1,600 champion Jared Starnes of NCHS.
"One thing I remember, comparing them to other coaches, they would never yell at you," he said. "They were always encouraging."
The Pattens said the best part of coaching is getting to know kids, which they do while running with their squads.
Normal West graduate Emily (Uhe) Irwin, the 1997 Honor Roll Meet 3,200 champion, remembers training with Den.
"During our runs he would talk with us one on one, ask how our lives were and got to know us," said Irwin. "He also taught us how to believe in ourselves and that we can achieve more than we thought we could."
Patten twins profile
Tom: 15 NCHS state qualifying cross country teams in 23 years (seven boys, eight girls)
Den: six Normal West state qualifying cross country teams in 13 years (five girls, one boys)