Patiently comforting grieving families and preparing bodies for final viewing as part of her day job, Medford funeral director Rachel Patstone is a fast, near-deadly force to be reckoned with when she straps on a pair of speed skates and hits the roller-derby track after hours.
Patstone is an apprentice embalmer at Rogue Valley Alternatives, but her alter ego on Southern Oregon Rollergirls is "Madame Morticia," and the 5-foot-tall grandmother isn't bashful about showing her stuff.
Patstone admits both her career choice and preferred sport are anything but typical for most 45-year-olds, but the combination makes an interesting conversation starter.
A funeral director since 2007, the local mom had wanted to work in the funeral industry since childhood.
"I had a cousin who died when we were both 10. We were almost born the same day, and at some point we lived together," she recalls.
"One day he happened to have gone to a parade, and I went to a friend's birthday party instead. When I got back from the party, they told me he was dead. I didn't believe them until I got home and saw my mom was crying. My mom never cried, so I knew it was real."
Pushed off a parade float and crushed, the boy was prepared for viewing by his family.
"Seeing him in the casket, his face was perfect. I didn't realize back then that morticians weren't miracle workers. I had thought he got squished, and here he looked perfect and he was OK again," she said.
"I thought an embalmer was the greatest thing on Earth. They let people see their babies again."
With her mind made up about one day helping families through the funeral process, Patstone started her family young, then attended college as a mother of four, graduating in 2005.
She and her husband, Dave, are self-declared vagabonds who have lived around the country. They moved from Orange County to the Rogue Valley in 2007.
She has been a lifelong skate enthusiast, and when roller derby began making a comeback nationwide, Patstone helped usher the movement into the Rogue Valley by participating in an early league at nearby Roller Odyssey, ultimately helping found the Southern Oregon Rollergirls league, based out of the Medford armory.
With her children grown and dream job in place, she morphed into the fearless Madame Morticia, dubbed Mort by teammates.
Patstone, current league vice-president, demands a high standard in a sport often defined by smack talk and raucous behavior.
"I've taught girls in our league that we do not badmouth, no matter what the other team says. We save it all for the track," Patstone says.
Patstone's husband says both day job and derby identity suit his better half well. So focused and popular is his wife at derby, he teases, he should merely be called Mr. Morticia.
"I joke with her that I need a T-shirt that says 'Derby Widow,' but she put her own hobbies on the backburner for her family for a long time, so this is her chance, this is about her. She played softball in the past but it didn't get her juices flowing like derby," he says.
"To be able to do something and put herself out there comes with a lot of hard work, and I don't know anyone who works harder than Rachel. With derby, it doesn't ever come down to one person; it's a team, but leadership has to really keep the focus."
Southern Oregon Rollergirls president Tiffany Maude, a.k.a. "Naughty Maudie," calls Patstone "one of the hardest working and most caring people," yet "the highest-scoring jammer in our league and a total badass."
"This lady has all sorts of balls in the air and always manages to keep them moving. She works tirelessly for our league, has the coolest family and has taken on the sacred duty of being a caretaker for our dead," Maude says.
"Watching her play is really fun. She gets this super-determined look on her face and with total concentration just plows through a two-minute jam. I've been calling her Mort for so long, a while back I referred to her as Rachel and my family had no idea who I was talking about. The name fits."
Not one for notoriety, Patstone says any accomplishments at derby are no less than a team effort by numerous incredible women with strong friendships and families behind them for support.
The combination of funeral director and roller-derby jammer, she admits, make for occasional second glances.
"Sometimes it can be interesting," Patstone says.
"I'll work with families who come in to see their loved one, and they'll stop and look at me for a minute and say, 'I think I've seen you before.' "
For info on upcoming SORG bouts, see www.sorollergirls.org.