By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Lee Patrone says he remembers it vividly, even though more than 50 years have passed, and while it was the greatest accomplishment in his life it has nothing to do with the West Virginia University basketball career that has lifted him into the Class of 2012 that will be inducted into the Mountaineer Sports Hall of Fame in September.
While he was enough of a hero on the basketball court to help Jerry West and the Mountaineers into the final of the 1959 NCAA Championships, only to suffer a heartbreaking defeat to California when Darrell Imhoff scored on a put-back with 17 seconds to play to give Cal a critical three-point lead in a 71-70 victory, it was in the swift current of the icy Ohio River where he performed a feat that earned him lifetime membership in a far more important Hall of Fame – the Hall of Fame of life.
“We had just finished our season and I was home from college. My friends and I were going to a grade school basketball game. We were crossing the Bellaire Bridge from Ohio into West Virginia, and I saw a crowd of people along the river banks and wondered what was going on,” he said from his Florida home Saturday morning.
He looked off into the river and saw someone floating about 120 feet from shore, the temperature about 30 degrees and the frigid waters turning her blue.
“I saw someone dive into the river and try to save that lady, but he couldn’t do it. It was all he could do to bring himself back in. She was still in the river,” Patrone said.
Patrone was dressed in a three-piece suit.
“We ran down to the river bank and on the way down I was stripping clothes off thinking someone has to go in and get her,” he said. “I went over this steep embankment and turned my ankle and it hurt, but I shrugged it off real quick.”
Patrone considered himself a strong swimmer and knew, as an athlete, he was probably in the best shape of anyone there.
“It all pointed at me,” he said. “So there I was in my underwear and socks. I dove in. The current was going pretty good, so I ran down ahead of her and let her come to me.”
As Wilma Otis, who had dived off the 90-foot high Bellaire Bridge, reached him, his mind was racing.
“I’m thinking ‘She could probably pull me under and that would be the end of both of us.’ So, I went around behind her and I said, ‘Give me your hand.’”
At that moment Wilma Otis turned toward Patrone.
“When she turned around she had one eye hanging out of the eye socket,” he said, a vision he never will forget. This was what he told a reporter in a UPI story that ran in the Weirton Daily Times on March 20, 1961:
“When I got to her it was terrible. There was blood streaming from her eyes. I guess she hit the water head first. She was actually blue. She really scared me. I think I saw the face of death.”
There are quotes and then there are quotes for all time. That was one of them … “I think I saw the face of death.”
“It was a scary moment, really. When I got her arm she was lifeless. I think we both went into shock,” Patrone said in the Saturday telephone interview.
He got to shore, the firemen arrived and it was over ... until he was given the Carnegie Hero Foundation Award later that year.
Compared with this, of course, most anything would pale in comparison, but Patrone’s playing abilities were such that he had many huge moments on the court.
A scorer who earned the nickname “The Bellaire Bomber,” Patrone’s greatest moment came when he was named the Most Valuable Player in the Sugar Bowl Tournament, but he also put on a show in the Southern Conference Tournament when he came off the bench to score 54 points in 56 minutes of action.
That was enough to have one reporter write, “He’s good enough to be cocky and cocky enough to be good.”
He was also good enough to become a Hall of Famer 50 years after his career ended.
“Good things come to those who wait,” he said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.