He stood out in the crowd Friday evening at Short Sands Beach in York.

Maybe it was because he was taller than anyone around him. Maybe it was because he climbed out of his pickup wearing a crisp white shirt and tie beneath his overcoat.

Or maybe it was because he was a man, surrounded by scores of women – all there to mourn the death of Rhonda Pattelena, 35, beaten to death with a rock on this idyllic stretch of shoreline one week earlier.

“I grew up in a home with domestic violence,” Ryan Liberty said, pausing for several seconds to collect himself. As he took a deep breath, a tear formed in the corner of his eye and rolled down his cheek.

“As you can see,” he finally continued, “this is personal.”

There’s an unnerving sameness to vigils like the one that drew more than 200 people to the Pavilion at Ellis Park, just a few hundred yards from where Jeffrey Buchannan, 33, of Bedford, Massachusetts, allegedly murdered Pattelena, also from Bedford. A medical assistant on her way to becoming a nurse, she left behind three children – one the son of Buchannan, who is being held without bail in the York County Jail.

The crowd, bundled against a biting wind, consisted mostly of women, as did the procession of speakers who took the microphone to pay tribute to Pattelena and promise her that justice will be done.

To their credit, a sprinkling of men were there – most appeared to be family members or friends of the victim who came up from Massachusetts. But with the exception of two men who were related to the victim, none spoke.

Why is that? Why, amid these painful gatherings to remember women whose lives were cut short by spasms of blind rage, do we not see and hear from more men?

“I think that men care,” Liberty said. “But I think it’s an awkward sort of thing.”

He should know. As chairman of the board of directors for Caring Unlimited, which helps victims of domestic violence throughout York County, Liberty understands the reluctance of some men to step into what they see as a cause steered largely, and understandably, by women.

Yet at the same time, Liberty agrees that more men need to join the effort. Just like he did three years ago.

Now 54, he grew up in central Maine in the 1970s. The third of four boys – one of his brothers is Randall Liberty, commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections – his childhood memories are pockmarked by images of his father coming home drunk and beating his mother.

“She really had no brothers, no uncles or anybody to stand up for her,” he said. “So when she married my father very young, all that she knew was that relationship.”

His father, who died in 2007, treated his sons like princes, showering them with affection and never, ever laying a hand on them, Liberty recalled.

And how did his father treat his mother?

“It would be tense in the house. You could feel it; it was palpable,” he said. “Dad would show up, he’d be drinking, he’d batter my mom, and the police would get called.”

And then?

“They’d come, and Dad would leave – sometimes he’d leave before (police arrived). Then it was, you know, ‘This is Ronny. Ronny just does that. Let him sober up – he’ll be a different guy tomorrow.’”

Community members and loved ones of Rhonda Pattelena gather at Short Sands Beach on Friday evening for a celebration of her life. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Times have changed. Where once police used – and frequently misused – their discretion on domestic calls, deference to the abuser is no longer the default response. For police departments large and small, zero tolerance for any form of abuse is now standard operating procedure.

As it is, decades later, for Liberty.

Long active in his community – he’s served as a selectman, a budget committee member, president of his local Rotary Club – he found himself looking for something new a few years ago. A friend in his hometown of Wells, a tuna fisherman, introduced him to a staffer from Caring Unlimited, who soon invited him to join the organization’s board.

At first, Liberty felt way out of place. Only one other man, Dana Prescott, an attorney in Saco, was on the board. As he sat there and listened to women talking mostly about other women who had been victimized, Liberty found himself wondering, “Like I can add something to that?”

“That’s what I felt,” he said. “So I’m sure that’s kind of what a lot of men feel.”

His jitters soon faded, dispelled by a board that could not have been more welcoming. And Liberty, it turns out, has added a lot.

Normally, board members leave Caring Unlimited’s day-to-day operations to the staff. But when he learned of Pattelena’s death and Friday’s candlelight commemoration, Liberty decided to attend.

“This is my first vigil,” he said.

A short distance away, York Police Chief Charles Szeniawski agreed that men have a big role to play in preventing the kind of violence he’s seen far too often throughout his 40-year career.

“Saying ‘I do’ doesn’t mean ‘I own you,’ right?” Szeniawski said. When men see other men behaving abusively, he added, “You just don’t go and look the other way. … Talk to each other. Don’t hide from it.”

John Kohler of York came down to the vigil with his wife, Kathy. The father of three grown daughters, he readily admits he’d be “out of my mind” if he ever witnessed domestic violence firsthand.

He’s far from alone. But what about those cases where it’s not about intervening to stop violence, but heading it off before it gets that far? How would he deal with another man – a friend, a neighbor, whatever – who seemed too close to the edge of that cliff?

“I’d say, ‘We have to talk,’” Kohler said.

And?

“I’d say, ‘What’s going on? What the (expletive) is wrong? Something ain’t right,’” Kohler replied.

It’s that simple. If you’re a man reading this and such a scenario sounds all too plausible, it’s time for a chat with that buddy or co-worker who’s been making everyone so nervous. Would you rather have that conversation now, uncomfortable as it may be, or find yourself watching the next vigil from afar, wishing you’d done more?

Ryan Liberty, who stood in the cold Friday evening kindly directing mourners from the parking lot to the nearby vigil, is proof positive that we can all do more to end the carnage. That it’s high time guys all over Maine stop looking down at their feet and step up.

As Liberty noted, “Men listen to men.”

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