photograph by Jerry Wolford & Scott Muthersbaugh

To the students, he’s known as Mr. Sonny. He takes care of everything at Highlander Academy, from the stately Vardell Hall to the terraced gardens filled with bright flowers and Carolina pines. For Sonny Patterson, a lifetime of service to this Red Springs prep school hasn’t been a glamorous job — and he wouldn’t want it to be. Patterson began working at Highlander as a custodian in 1966 at just 20 years old.

These days, he’s not toting students to and from ball games and field trips like he used to, but in many ways, he’s still caring for the kids. Generations of students have grown up hearing Patterson’s advice: Listen to your teachers and do your best. His 50 years of hard work were recognized last August, when Highlander nominated him for one of the state’s highest honors, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine. The award came as a surprise to Patterson, but to the Highlander community, nobody is more deserving.

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Caroline Kelly is an editorial assistant at J&J Editorial in Cary. She was a spring 2018 editorial intern.