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Man writes his own obituary, comes clean about not really having Ph.D., stealing safe

Val Patterson, left, who wrote his own obituary before he died, is seen next to his wife Mary Jane, of Utah.
Val Patterson, left, who wrote his own obituary before he died, is seen next to his wife Mary Jane, of Utah.Courtesy KSL/Deseret News

Dr. Val Patterson, Ph.D., used his obituary as an opportunity to tell the world some surprising facts about himself, including: He didn't actually have a Ph.D.; and yes, he's the guy who stole that company safe a few decades ago.

The Utah man, who died at age 59 of throat cancer on July 10, prepared in advance a light-hearted summary of his life that was published in The Salt Lake Tribune's obituary section on Sunday. In it, he described growing up in Salt Lake City, meeting the love of his life, traveling, and spending time with good friends.

But then, it was time to clear his conscience. "I have confessions and things I should now say," Patterson wrote.

"I really am NOT a PhD. What happened was that the day I went to pay off my college student loan at the [University of Utah], the girl working there put my receipt into the wrong stack, and two weeks later, a PhD diploma came in the mail. I didn't even graduate, I only had about 3 years of college credit," he wrote. "I never did even learn what the letters 'PhD' even stood for."

To the engineers he worked with who had no idea he wasn't really a doctorate, Patterson said, "I'm sorry, but you have to admit my designs always worked very well."

Patterson also came clean about stealing a safe from an inn in 1971.

"I could have left that unsaid, but I wanted to get it off my chest," he wrote.

While much of the obituary is written in a playful tone -- Patterson even told Disneyland it can "throw away that 'Banned for Life' file you have on me, I'm not a problem anymore" -- when addressing his "remarkable" wife Mary Jane, there are no jokes.

"My regret is that I felt invincible when young and smoked cigarettes when I knew they were bad for me," he wrote. "I have robbed my beloved Mary Jane of a decade or more of the two of us growing old together and laughing at all the thousands of simple things that we have come to enjoy."

Starks Funeral Parlor, where a "celebration of life" will be held on Sunday for Patterson (casual dress is encouraged, he told readers), has been inundated with emails, phone calls, and Facebook messages since the obituary was published.

"It's just been unreal. It's a wonderful thing. We've never had anything like this before," Brady Gamble, funeral director at Starks, located in Salt Lake City, told NBC News on Wednesday morning.

While Patterson went so far as to write his own obituary, he didn't plan his service, Gamble said. His wife Mary Jane came in recently to discuss specifics.

"Once in a while we get families where the person who passed away writes their own obituary, but it's very rare for somebody to write one like this and for it to be so inspiring and so interesting," he said.

On the Starks Funeral Parlor Facebook page, which commenters turned to after the funeral home's website crashed from getting so many hits, condolences poured in. "To his widow, and remaining family... I can tell he was a blast to be around!" wrote one person. "I personally did not know him, but from his self-penned obituary, he sounds like just the type of person I would have liked to have as a friend. Mary Jane, you obviously were the joy of his life and must be a wonderful, caring and loving person," commented another.

Gamble believes Patterson's honesty while knowing his death was imminent is what touched so many people.

"He wanted to convey his love to his wife and his remorse for not being able to spend many more years with her," Gamble said. "I haven't spoken with [Mary Jane] directly, but I've heard this is very overwhelming for her. I don't think she was expecting this type of response."

Calls to Mary Jane went unanswered Wednesday morning.

Patterson is survived by his mother and brother, in addition to his wife. In his obituary, Patterson had one final message to his readers: "If you want to live forever, then don't stop breathing, like I did."

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