July 13, 2024 Donate

Chelsea, Dexter, Milan, Saline

From Trapper to Automotive President: The Unyielding Spirit of Dexter’s Pat Winton

By Cynthia Furlong Reynolds

Fred Rogers once observed, “Retirement is when you think you’re at the end of something, but really you’re at the beginning of something else.”

Pat Winton is the living embodiment of those words.

At the age of 85, the former trapper/gandy dancer/carnival hawker/ long-haul driver/lumberjack/ automotive engineer/international business owner/ship’s captain has launched his umpteenth career: as a published author.

This month, his memoir Farmed Out in Ontonagon County has been released, chronicling a shockingly challenging childhood spent within a harsh rural Finnish community on the Upper Peninsula.

“After high school, the only writing I did was job-related technical writing, but for forty years I thought about writing about my early days,” he says. An invitation to join the Cedar Chips writing group at the Cedars of Dexter introduced him to a new passion at a time when his wife had just entered a memory care unit and Pat was feeling adrift for the first time in his life.

He arrived at his first workshop with a stack of stories and a determination to finally piece together his extraordinary coming-of-age tale of loss, abuse, neglect, determination, survival, and ultimately, success.

The story starts when Pat Winton was seven and his father died at the dinner table. That night, a neighbor put his hand on the boy’s skinny shoulder and told him, “You’re the man of the house now.”

The child took those words seriously. Nearly unbearable burdens fell on his shoulders during his childhood—“but Dad had already schooled and disciplined me in life, as if he was preparing me for my future,” Winton says. Wilbur Winton had taught his young son to fish alone on streams, fix cars, plant gardens, understand the logging business, and work hard. That training helped Pat survive the coming dark years.

Winton’s chronically ill and grieving mother brought her two small children to her Finnish grandparents’ farmstead in the U.P., where Pat labored manfully to add to his mother’s tiny income. Whenever she was hospitalized—which was frequent—he and his sister were farmed out separately to different Finnish relatives and locals. “We could only see each other at school.”

In time, his mother married a man who abused the boy unmercifully, expecting him to run the primitive dairy farm himself, regardless of the school calendar. The day the man thrust a pitchfork into Pat’s back was the day he left the farm with only the clothes on his back. He was fifteen.

Pat worked ceaselessly to pay for room, board, clothes, and everything else a growing boy needed. He trapped and skinned animals with an uncle, delivered newspapers, worked on cars, manned a filling station, clerked at a grocery store, laid railroad tracks, farmed, harvested, and logged. When he still couldn’t meet his expenses, he joined a carnival, lying about his age and stretching the truth about his experience driving long-haul trucks.

Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Winton excelled at work and school. He was elected student council president and joined the football team for a season. And then one day the police arrived at school, handcuffed him, and hauled him to court for a crime he didn’t commit.

After a long series of adventures and misadventures in the U.P., Pat Winton worked his way through the General Motors Institute (now Kettering), earned a master’s degree in engineering, married “the love of my life,” and fathered three children.

But his adventures—and careers—didn’t end there.

After fifteen years working with the GM Fisher Body Division in Warren, he moved to a thermoforming machine-building company. Six years later, he was its president.

In 1982, he moved his family to Dayton when he was hired as president of Glove Tool and Engineering Company. Seven years later, he purchased the firm. He retired after 25 years.

He had prepared for retirement—or, rather, his first retirement—by taking classes and training for a 100-ton U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license. At first, he and Elaine enjoyed cruising on the Great Lakes, but the captain’s license allowed them to spend happy years moving yachts for boat-building companies and leading travel groups throughout the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi, and in and out of Atlantic Coast ports.

After Elaine was diagnosed with frontal lobe memory issues, the couple moved to the Cedars and Pat entered a new career: caregiving. When Elaine entered the UMRC Memory Care facility two years ago, Pat visited her daily, wondering what was left for him to do.

That’s when he met the Cedar Chips. “The group inspired me to begin to tell my story, Elaine’s story, and other stories about life in the U.P.,” he says.

“I now realize that I had been uniquely prepared for my life in this world. I learned that challenges that appear to be unsolvable, or at least overwhelming, could be handled without giving up or giving into discouragement—or worse.”

After reading Farmed Out in Ontonagon County, Winton’s son Craig told him,” Dad, you didn’t make excuses for what is or was that you had to face—or what you left behind.”

“I liked his summary,” Winton says. “Now, at 85 years of age, I’ve started another adventure that comes with new challenges.”

This month Farmed Out in Ontonagon County went on sale in bookstores and on Amazon and Winton is becoming a salesman and marketer.

“I’m looking forward to more challenges in the future before the Lord decides to take me home,” he says, grinning, as he hauls an armload of book boxes to his car.

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Winton can be reached at www.PatWinton.com.