When other Oakdale High School teachers assembled for a staff meeting Aug. 9, Jeri Roen wondered, "Where's Veronica?"
"Every year she'd go on a wild trip somewhere," said Roen, a special education teacher. "School didn't start for two more days, and I thought maybe she was still on her trip."
When the meeting ended, Roen noticed the door to Veronica Patron's classroom was open, but she wasn't inside. Nor was the bicycle the 56-year-old — also a special ed teacher — always rode to school from her home in Riverbank.
A few minutes later, Roen returned. The bike was there. So was a bottle of water on Patron's desk, along with one of those small bottles of energy drink, unopened.
And there Patron sat in her desk chair, kicked back and apparently napping as she did occasionally during her lunch breaks.
"I said, 'Veronica, wake up! You didn't come to the meeting,' " Roen said.
In an instant, Roen realized something was seriously wrong.
"She had that porcelain look," Roen said.
In the five minutes between the times Roen visited her room, Patron returned to it, sat down in her chair and died. Roen lost a friend, as did many other educators in Oakdale and beyond. Her students, past and present, lost a mother figure who gave them a shoulder to cry on, advice when they needed it and even fed them when they were hungry.
And they all lost a true free spirit — a woman who traveled the globe alone during her summer vacations and making friends everywhere she went.
This summer, Patron went to Turkey, where she met a man on a bus.
He spoke no English. She spoke no Turkish. Yet, they communicated.
"He took her home to meet his family — his wife and kids," said her daughter, Genevieve Patron. "When she got back and told me about it, I asked her, 'How'd you talk to them?' She said, 'We just pointed at things. We had a beautiful time.' "
A beautiful time, in what Veronica Patron turned into a beautiful life. Hers didn't started out that way, though. She grew up in Stockton, the daughter of woman who was of Apache descent, Genevieve Patron said.
"They were really poor," she said. "They worked really hard to get where they were."
Veronica and her mother attended the University of the Pacific together in the 1970s, with Veronica graduating in 1975. Feisty and persistent, Veronica's mom (also named Genevieve) at times marched with farmworker rights activist César Chávez, hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., in her wheelchair in a failed attempt to see the president only to be arrested for protesting in front of the White House, and even mounted her own campaign for president, friends said.
"She'd see homeless people in the alley and feed them, bring them a plate," Genevieve Patron said. "When people were down and out, she'd help."
Veronica Patron, who began teaching at Oakdale High 23 years ago, inherited her mom's spirit for adventure and determination to help people. She raised two children mostly as a single mom, said friend Jackie Throne, a retired Oakdale High teacher who now lives in San Francisco.
"She'd dropped out of high school and had a kid at 15 or 16, and then managed to go back to school and get her teaching credential and master's," Throne said. "That was quite an accomplishment."
Daughter Genevieve is 40 and lives in Riverbank. Patron's son, Martin, is 21. He played football at Oakdale High and Modesto Junior College, and is now playing at University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D.
Veronica always had the travel bug, but rarely hit the tourist hot spots. Each summer meant a new adventure. She visited China, once knocking on a family's door to ask if she could use their shower. They let her.
She traveled throughout Mexico, Central America and to Peru and Argentina in South America. She went to Vietnam. Sometimes, she'd stay in the states.
"She'd meet someone and ask for their address," Roen said. "She'd tell them, 'When I get to Montana, I want to look you up and sleep on your lawn.' "
Patron also maintained a friendship with a Native American woman who lives down in the Grand Canyon.
"She used to go visit her and go to the sweat lodges," Throne said.
When she returned just in time for school each year, her special education students came first, Roen said.
"She loved them so much," Roen said. "I don't think someone like her can be replaced."
"She was a great teacher," Throne added. "She was very compassionate and understood that what they needed was life skills. She helped them to become independent and navigate the world."
What caused Patron's sudden death? The autopsy results are still pending, according to the Stanislaus County Coroner's office. Daughter Genevieve said her mom lacked her usual spunk after returning from Turkey. Roen said Patron might have been trying to prepare her friends and family for what she suspected was coming.
"She teased about her funeral, that no one would come," Roen said. "She and I studied the Bible once a week and (her death) got me to thinking: Last year, I couldn't understand why she was asking so many questions. I think she knew something."
One final trip, perhaps?
"I consider myself a brave person," Throne said. "But I never had the guts to travel alone, like she did. I was supposed to go to Nepal with her. Now, I guess I'll have to go alone and meet her on a mountaintop somewhere."
Where in spirit, at least, Patron probably has already befriended a Himalayan goat herder and is hanging out with his family.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.