'Patti' was committed to helping others

Tom Loewy

Patricia Higgins' last moments before death told a story hard to put into words.

It's not a tale of sacrifice. It's the final act in the life of a woman who always reached out to others.

The 57-year-old Alexis woman died Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009 in a snow-covered ditch along 320th Street, after stopping to aid two teenage girls involved in a single-car accident.

Sometime after 5 p.m., the car carrying the girls left the road and slammed into a power pole about four miles east of Alexis. The force of that impact toppled half the pole, bringing down wires. The vehicle overturned. Higgins tried to get to the girls inside. She was electrocuted when she reached out to steady herself and touched a support wire of the broken power pole.

The untimely death of this wife, mother of four, vital member of Norwood Presbyterian Church and dedicated employee of Heartland Health Care Center in Galesburg, shocked many. The woman known simply as "Patti" was famous for candy cane cookies, potato soup, a willingness to listen and an unflagging commitment to helping others. She lived all of her life in and around Alexis. She was imbedded in the community.

So her manner of death surprised no one.

"Helping people was in her genes," said Dennis Higgins, who married Patti in November 1970. "Her parents had hearts as big as horse tubs and Patti wasn't any different."

"She wanted to be a good Christian. She always wanted to help others. More than anything, when you live in a community you put down roots and you become part of it. You go by the instinct to help other people. That's what Patti did."

Brenda Gregory echoed Dennis Higgins' words. Patti and Brenda grew up together in Alexis' Lutheran Church and formed a close bond while they attended Norwood Presbyterian.

"We started going to Norwood after we got married and our husbands went there," Brenda said. "I was five years older than Patti and when we reconnected at Norwood I saw what a special person she was.

"We always had foster bags at the church for foster children. Every year she would call me and ask what was needed. She would do all the shopping and donate the items. She just gave. I'm not surprised she died helping others, thinking of someone else and not herself. She never hesitated to help."

Before she moved over to Heartland, Patti worked with the developmentally disabled at Cottonwood Health Care in Galesburg. More than a few of the residents there never had visitors, so Patti stepped into the breach. At Christmas she asked each resident what they wanted and distributed a list to the North Henderson Homemakers group and at Norwood.

Cottonwood residents didn't go without presents. Patti sought no credit. She reached out quietly.

"After I heard Patti died, my first thought was of the lives of all the people she touched," Brenda Gregory said. "There will be a great void in so many lives. She would never admit that, but it's true."

No one will feel the depth and breadth of that void more than her husband. But he said he isn't angry.

"The first time I met Patti, we didn't click," Dennis said. "But one night I went to a ball game down in Abingdon and I ended up sitting next to her.

"We clicked there and kept seeing each other. That was in 1968. She was junior at Alexis High School and I was a sophomore. It was magical. I called it one long fairy tale. Patti was my best friend, my confidant and my lover."

On the day Patti died, Dennis had returned from work and waited for Patti to pull in the driveway. He couldn't reach his wife on her cell phone and heard the sound of sirens somewhere close.

"I just had a feeling," Dennis said. "I got in my car and started to drive the way I knew she would take home. Then I saw Patti's van and my phone rang. I was told a deputy was waiting for me at home to talk to me. It wasn't Patti in the van.

"I whipped around and for a couple of miles, I was high-tailing it. I was being reckless trying to catch up to the van. Then a slow-moving vehicle pulled out in front of me. I had to slow down."

Dennis said at that moment he knew his wife was dead.

"All of the sudden I felt peace. I knew Patti was gone and she was reaching out. Touching me. Guiding me home. I've never felt such peace. That's what is getting me through."

Dennis knows Patti lives on in the lives of people she reached for and touched. "It is my privilege to have known Patti," he said. "It is my upmost privilege to have been her soulmate, her lifemate."

"If she would have to do it all over again - try to reach out and help those girls, knowing the results - she would do it all over again. She would say, 'Yes I would.' It was the way she lived."