Patty passionate about his profession, pastime

Patty passionate about his profession, pastime

March 30th, 2011 by Mike O'Neal in Catoosa

Clifton M. "Skip" Patty in his office in downtown Ringgold. Photo by Mike O'Neal

Attorney Clifton M. "Skip" Patty could easily thank a good LSAT score - and the U.S. Army - for helping him decide on a career.

The 1963 graduate of Ringgold High School earned a bachelor's degree in history from Valdosta State College and decided to take the Law School Admission Test.

"I wish I could say being a lawyer was a longtime goal," he said. "It wasn't, but I did well on the LSAT."

Accepted to the law schools at the University of Georgia, Florida and Emory universities, Patty chose Emory and it was there in 1968 that fate again intervened.

President Lyndon Johnson did away with graduate school deferments that year and Patty the student was soon Patty the soldier.

"I joined the Army in 1968 and in 1969 was commissioned a lieutenant in the infantry," he said.

Patty said that at this point during the Vietnam War, junior officers had a life span measured in weeks. But rather than Southeast Asia, Patty was posted to a brigade stationed in Alaska.

Since his unit had no legal staff Patty's one year of law school led to his being assigned that duty. For the entirety of his three-year tour in the 49th state, he served with the Judge Advocate General's Corps.

Upon his discharge from military service, Emory welcomed Army veteran Patty's return. He completed his studies, passed the bar exam in 1974 and returned to Ringgold.

Clifton's Notes

Q&A with Catoosa County Attorney Clifton M. "Skip" Patty.

Q: What don't people know about you?

A: In a small town, you don't have secrets. People might not know about my gardening - tomatoes, okra, things like that - and that I like to can at home, in Mason jars.

Q: Your first paying job?

A: My first not on the farm was working summers at Peerless in Rossville. I was a floater, a relief worker, at the dye plant.

Q: You've been county attorney in the early 1980s when it was governed by a sole commissioner and since 1993 with its current five-member commission. Has the law, and the role of county attorney, changed during that time?

A: Practicing law used to be more fun, there was less pressure. Laws have changed a lot, and county law is hard law.

Now I have five bosses.

Budgets used to be a few million dollars for a smaller population. Now budgets are too large for one person to handle.

Today local government is run like a business - the sheriff was the first to run his office like a business.

Though growing, Ringgold has managed to keep its small town feel.

Q: Some of your more memorable cases?

A: While working in his office (on Nashville Street) he hears a crash outside. This was in the days of no-fault insurance and one of those involved hired Patty after being evicted and losing everything while awaiting the insurance settlement. Eventually, Patty ended up suing the company and going to trial. A jury found in his client's favor and awarded damages equal to one day's premiums. At the time, that judgement of about $900,000 was a Catoosa County record.

• First meeting Judge Ralph Van Pelt Jr., when Patty was defense attorney during the "Devil Worshipers Trial," a murder trial prosecuted in Summerville.

• Defending a client accused of burning a school in LaFayette. Even though there was a confession, "my client said they'd intended to break in and steal," his client was freed. Patty demonstrates by softly clapping his hands together in an irregular rhythmn, "they could hear a slapping sound," he said.

Q: Where were you raised?

A: I was born in Trion but grew up here. Dad worked for Peerless Mills, so we lived in Rossville until he bought the family farm here in Catoosa from my grandfather.

Q: What's with the nickname?

A: I'm a junior and Mom started calling me "Skippy." I grew up here, so when I came back everyone knew me as Skip. My son is Clifton, III, so he's Cliff, like his grandfather.

Patty, an only child, said following his father's death in 1972, his mother was home by herself,

"I thought I needed to come home," he said.

Local attorney John Wiggins offered the recent graduate a job in his hometown.

"He was a wonderful mentor," Patty said. "He died in 1976, but we had one full year together."

That year has led Patty, who says that if he had not followed his lawyerly career "I'd have liked teaching at a college," to carry on that tradition of mentoring the young and the local.

Ken Posten spent time with Patty and Chad Young, now a partner in the firm, was a summer clerk during his college years. Recently Marissa Coffey, a Dalton native who passed her Georgia Bar Exam less than a year ago, joined the firm.

In addition to raising a brood of young lawyers, Patty has three children - none of whom expressed any interest in practicing law. One daughter is a teacher in Atlanta. The other children are still in school, a daughter attending college in Texas while a son pursues an undergraduate degree in North Carolina.

Aside from his love of the law, this attorney has another passion.

Patty is an avid angler - as evidenced by a stuffed sailfish mounted above the entrance to the firm.

"I have fished all over the world," he said, citing expeditions to fish the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. "I like to fly fish. My goal is to catch a tarpon on fly tackle."

Patty has set and met other goals. A novice runner in 1982, he quit smoking and was running a lot when in 1990 he contracted encephalitis. Though running might be the cause of his illness, it also led to his survival.

"A lot of doctors told me my physical condition is what helped save me," he said.

That recovery is now years, miles and pairs of running shoes in the past.

"I've run every Karen Lawrence Run since 1990, ran the New York City Marathon in 1995 and have run several half-marathons," he said.

Asked if he still enjoyed his practice and, at 65, if he had considered retiring, Patty replied "no" but that "I'll continue doing this, but pushing some of the work off on Chad and Marissa."

And when asked about his decision to come home to Catoosa County, his voice showed no hesitation or wistfulness.

"I've never regretted it," he said.