News & Politics

One Big Happy Family

Bob and Barbara Patton have 10 children and 52 grandchildren—and counting. What’s it like to have that big a family? Says patriarch Bob Patton: “Life is an adventure.”

Photograph by Vincent Ricardel.

Barbara and Bob Patton can name all of their grandchildren—as long as they do it by family.

“Andrew, Lauren, Thomas, Anna, Mary, Hope, Silas, Joshua, Ruby,” says Barbara, counting off their son Burt’s children.

“Bryan, Becky, Bobby, Kennan, Karol, Kyle, Brady, Kristy,” she says of Bruce’s kids.

That’s 17. There are 35 more.

The Pattons, married 59 years, weren’t expecting their own ten children to want such big families, but six of them have at least five kids. “We loved having a lot of siblings,” says the couple’s son Bobby. “I couldn’t imagine not having playmates for my kids.”

The group is so large—81 people including spouses and great-grandchildren—that they’ve stopped doing a big Thanksgiving dinner. Most stop by Bob and Barbara’s for dessert.

“The first question people ask is ‘Are you Catholic?’ ” says Bobby. “My dad’s answer is ‘No—passionate Protestants.’ ”

Five of their kids and more than half of their 52 grandchildren live on the couple’s 40-acre property near Damascus—Bob bought the land two decades ago and offered his children lots to build on.

Nobody knocks when they’re coming into Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Basketballs, skateboards, and tennis shoes litter the front hallway. Kids grab what they want from the refrigerator.

The Pattons moved to Washington from Pennsylvania in the early 1950s, when Bob, an engineer, took a job selling electronics. Barbara, whose two brothers were much older, felt like an only child and always wanted a big family.

“I was madly in love with this lady,” Bob says, “and if she wanted children, that’s what would happen.”

They had their first five kids, took a break, and had five more. All of the kids’ names start with B: “It’s easier to figure out names when you’re limited to one letter,” says Barbara.

Bob’s motto was “Life is an adventure.” Son Bobby says: “When I was a teenager, they used to drive us cross-country to follow our favorite rock bands—and go to the concert with us.”

Money was tight. “There was a time when we had three in college and five in private school,” says Bob, who kept the couple’s money in a milk jar when they were first married. “Barbara never complained—she lived on what we had.”

In 1984, Bob helped three of his sons start a family business, Patton Electronics Company in Gaithersburg; a few of his grandchildren now work there, too. At 82, he goes into the office every day: “I’m hanging around young guys with a lot of energy, and that’s good for me.”

He and Barbara aren’t done being parents; they’re raising two of their grandsons, ages 13 and 16. They know all about Facebook and MySpace; Bob sends the boys text messages. Nothing their grandkids do surprises them.

“We went through all the stages with our own kids—the music styles, the long hair, the clothes,” says Barbara. “It’ll pass.”

Every morning after their grandsons leave for school—some of the cousins meet at their house to walk to the bus stop—Barbara and Bob go to breakfast at Tom and Ray’s in Damascus. They run errands together, often holding hands in the car.

“We’ll go on a date, and by noon she’s missing the kids,” says Bob.

The couple has a swimming pool and a basketball court. The pool is packed on summer weekends.

One Sunday last summer, Barbara sat holding then-eight-month-old Audrey while about 15 cousins jumped off the diving board and ran around swinging water noodles. Some of the grandchildren see one another so often that one used to confuse the words “cousin” and “friend”: She came home from school and told her mom, “I made some new cousins today.”

The kids keep Bob and Barbara laughing. Eight-year-old Read came in and kneeled on the couch one day, trying to make small talk. He’d spotted Pop-Tarts in the kitchen. After Barbara gave him one, he came back, sat on the couch, and made more small talk.

“Grandma,” he finally said, “Pop-Tarts come two in a package.”

This article first appeared in the September 2009 issue of Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.

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