Homeland resident Patrick Ulmen reflects on a life with the Navy and IBM

Patrick Ulmen

Patrick Ulmen: resident, grandfather, painter, former Navy and IBMer.

Patrick Ulmen can tell you how to milk a cow or make a thermometer casing. He once operated a submarine engine. He can fix a broken-down car. And he can paint a beautiful seascape.

It’s all a product of a life lived on dairies, in towns, and working with the U.S. Navy and IBM.

Today, Patrick enjoys life as a resident in one of Homeland Center’s personal care suites. His roomy, bright space showcases family photos, the books on military history that Patrick likes to read, and his paintings.

First, about those cows.

Patrick grew up in Watertown, New York. His father was a World War I Navy veteran who made 17 Atlantic crossings on the USS George Washington, a troop transport. On that ship, Patrick’s father taught recuperating soldiers to sew and knit.

As a teenager, Patrick spent his summers working for local farmers. There, he learned to drive and to milk cows. At 6 a.m. every day, he would go to the barn and turn on a radio broadcast that played Khachaturian’s rhythmic “The Sabre Dance” to help workers keep time as they milked.

On a dry day, farm work was nice, he recalls, but “on a wet, rainy day, you were wet through.”

As for those thermometer casings — for many years, Patrick’s mother performed piecework at home for a thermometer company. A truck would deliver long glass tubes that his mother would file into precise lengths. She would then roll the tube over a flame and, at the precise moment, hit a pedal that delivered air from a compressor to make a bubble at the end of the tube. Then the tubes would go back to the factory, to be filled — in those days — with mercury.

In Patrick’s room, a sepia-toned photograph shows his mother in profile, wearing a long string of pearls. While raising six children and making those thermometer casings, she also found time for bowling. She held bowling records for 28 years.

After high school, Patrick followed his father into the U.S. Navy, where he served on a Nautilus submarine prototype during the Korean War. His job was keeping the small sub’s diesel engines running amid the roar and the heat.

“Sometimes, it might be 130 degrees in there,” he says. The submarine was performing “spy stuff,” he recalls, sailing from Groton, Connecticut, to Cuba and Puerto Rico while testing methods for identifying locations of other ships.

After four years of Navy service, Patrick enrolled in Broome County Technical Institute (now SUNY Broome Community College) to study mechanical engineering with an electrical sideline. That was also when he married his wife, Shirley, who had been introduced by a friend.

After working such jobs as printer’s apprentice and cable winder, he landed a job with IBM. He would spend the bulk of his career there – 20 years – as the company moved into the forefront of business computing. He worked his way up the ladder and into management, eager to soak up any learning offered. He spent his time in quality assurance, making sure that products sent from vendors met exacting specifications.

“I got really simpatico with the guys,” he says of the vendors whose work he scrutinized. “I might say, ‘You’ve got a rejection coming.’ They were great people to work with. You make friends with them.”

A tour of the artwork hanging on Patrick’s wall introduces some of the outdoor spots where Patrick has gone fishing, canoeing, or boating with his son, brother, and friends. His works show an expert eye for depth and focal point.

Patrick was always active in his parish and belonged to the Knights of Columbus. He stays close with his two granddaughters. At Homeland, he enjoys making friends and spending his time reading and making ship models.

“It’s a pleasure being here,” he says. “It’s the friendliness of the people. No one’s ever said a cross word here. The staff is always happy to help.’’