Local ‘American Eagles’ photographer has passion for aviation that spurred his life’s work

Growing up in what he called “a house of art,” Dan Patterson of Butler Twp. said his father was his best role model. Bill Patterson was a photographer and commercial artist.

“My dad was making art until the day he died at the age of 95,” Patterson said.

After graduating from Colonel White High School in Dayton in 1971, Patterson studied fine arts at Wright State University. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1976.

While at Colonel White, Patterson became a charter student for the Living Arts Center in Dayton, a program developed by Dayton Public Schools.

“The Living Arts Center is where I flourished and found my way in the world,” Patterson said. “It was a magic place.”

Between his family background and his affinity for taking pictures, Patterson was a natural to be tapped to photograph the center for the newsletter. While doing that, he met the staff of the creative writing department and became the staff photographer of the Arthur Beerman community newspaper.

“I was hanging out with incredibly talented writers and getting paid to take pictures,” Patterson said. “$60-$75 in cash weekly was pretty good for a kid like me.”

That was Patterson’s first paid gig. He was 15 years old and has been working ever since. His resume reads like a history lesson of Dayton. He worked as a photographer for the Journal Herald newspaper in Dayton and in the camera department at Rikes department store.

“I saved money and paid for my own college,” Patterson said.

After college, he was hired by a local commercial photo studio and a year later, in 1977, he opened his own studio. Eventually he merged his studio with his father’s and then opened his own studio in Cincinnati with a partner. In 1991, he returned to Dayton and has had a home-based business ever since.

“My dad was mostly a studio photographer,” Patterson said. “I am more of a photojournalist and do work on the fly, covering sports and politics.”

From a young age, Patterson, like many boys growing up in Dayton, developed an interest in aviation and his dream was to pursue aviation photography full time.

“I had a fascination with the Wright Brothers for as long as I can remember,” Patterson said. “I had a lot of aviation books, and all the photographs were the same and I thought, boring.”

Patterson’s idea was to start putting together aviation books that took a look at planes from the inside out. Meanwhile in 1995, he received a call from a retired two-star Air Force General Ron Dick, who asked Patterson if he wanted to work on photographs for the official 50th anniversary history book of the United States Air Force.

“I ended up at the museum (of the United States Air Force) two days a week for about a year and a half,” Patterson said. “I also designed the book.”

That book, “American Eagles,” was first published in 1997 and had 465 pages, including 600 photographs with captions. Patterson and Dick worked together on a total of 18 books, including a five-book series about how aviation has changed the world, before Dick passed away from cancer in 2008.

After Dick died, Patterson was determined to keep working and published more books and produced a World War I documentary. And for the past five years, he has been teaching aviation history courses at Sinclair Community College. He developed the curriculum, building it around his life experiences, including travelling around Europe.

“Suddenly here I am writing two to three books every year,” Patterson said. “The film I produced was about the Lafayette Escadrille, the unit of Americans flying for France in World War I.”

Patterson said he never thought he’d see his name listed among movie credits and today, at age 70, he says he is still having fun in his job and intends to continue working as long as possible.

“I have slowed down a bit since January when I had my ankle replaced,” Patterson said. “I’m still writing while recovering.”

Patterson lives with his partner, Cindy, and has three adult children, Nate, who lives in Arizona, Brigitta, who is in Boston and Joe, who lives in Dayton. And he looks forward to living a long life, especially since his dad lived to be 95 and his mom, 93.

Credit: Mike Ullery

Credit: Mike Ullery

“I have a long way still to go in my life,” Patterson said. “I have an agent who is helping me a lot and I’m doing a second edition now of ‘American Eagles.’”

Also in the works in a 75th anniversary of the USAF book. Patterson started photography for this book last July and is writing all the captions. Two other books are in process with one possibly being released before the end of the year.

“I’ve had the best life,” Patterson said. “I’ve been so lucky getting to do what I’ve done. I’ve travelled the world but always come home to Dayton.”

About the Author