When word began circulating on Sunday evening that Patrick Pait, the county attorney for the past four years, had been killed in a traffic accident in Cumberland County, those who knew him well or just a little bit flooded social media to express their disbelief as well as their despair.
They read from the same script, remembering their friend as someone who was of immense character, caring, compassionate, generous, eager to please, competent, civic-minded, funny and charismatic. We spoke to more than a few of them for a page 1A story by Scott Bigelow that was published on Tuesday, and several struggled to control their emotions, a result of the unexpectedness of the loss, but also a surrender to its enormity.
Over the years, we have often been called upon to report the death of a local leader, not only on page 1A but in this space, where we struggle to put in perspective that person’s effect on the community, never believing that our words, no matter how carefully chosen and assembled, can match the task. That is the struggle today.
We admit to some skepticism when Pait was hired in 2014, mostly because we didn’t know him well. He was locally grown, a graduate of Lumberton High, and that always worries us, suggesting a hire is based on factors beyond that person’s resume. We are instinctively doubtful of our county commissioners’ willingness to hire the best person possible, believing too often that decision is based on skin hue, relationships, and their ability to control the hire.
We were dead wrong.
As this county’s attorney and someone this newspaper turned to often, Pait was an absolute pleasure, quick to return our phone calls, emails and even texts, and then patient in explaining the complexities of the governmental soup of the day. For that, we were appreciative. It not only made our job easier, but it benefited those of you who depend on us for information.
But his work as county attorney was just a small part of Patrick Pait. He also managed the family farm that produced those wonderful plump and juicy strawberries, and was the stage for the World’s Shortest Parade, which was indicative of his fun-loving nature. He was a proud graduate of the University of North Carolina, and he loved his Tar Heels.
Pait, who was just 34 years old, was evolving as a community leader. He was on the board for the Boy Scouts Cape Fear Council, was a member of the Kiwanis of Lumberton-Robeson, in charge of the civic group’s Pancake Breakfast, and then there was the work he did both as a private attorney and working for the county.
This county produces a lot of young people who go away, get educated, hang diplomas, and accumulate credentials, but choose to do their good work elsewhere. This is where Pait separated himself; his fork in the road was a U-turn.
Pait was at heart a country boy, someone who fit comfortably into a pair of overalls while perched atop a tractor, turning soil at the farm, but he was also at ease in a coat and tie, seated at the head of a boardroom, directing traffic as the government did its work.
Although Pait could have gone anywhere and done anything, he chose to return to his native county and build not only his life, but work to improve the plight of so many others who call this place home. It is our great loss that his time doing that has been cut so horribly short.