Former editor, Poynter chairman Eugene Patterson dies at 89

Tampa Bay Times | Atlanta Journal-Constitution | Associated Press | The Washington Post | The New York Times
Eugene Patterson died of complications from cancer Saturday night. He was 89.

For much of the 1960s Patterson edited the Atlanta Constitution, where he frequently wrote about the Civil Rights Movement. His most famous column was called “A Flower for the Graves,” published after the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. was bombed in 1963. The column, which was read that evening by Walter Cronkite on the “CBS Evening News,” urged white Southerners “not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn’t know any better” but on themselves.

We — who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.

We — who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their nigger jokes.

We — who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.

We — the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and demand it recognition — we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die.

His editorial writing won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967.

Patterson was the managing editor of The Washington Post for three years. “It was a heady time to be a newspaper executive in the nation’s capital, which was caught up in the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers case,” Robert W. Hooker writes in the Tampa Bay Times. “But Mr. Patterson grew restless playing second fiddle to the Post’s domineering executive editor, Benjamin C. Bradlee, and eventually left.”

After a stint teaching at Duke University, Patterson became the editor of what was then the St. Petersburg Times, as well as the Evening Independent and Congressional Quarterly, in 1972. He succeeded Nelson Poynter as the president of the St. Petersburg Times Co. and then chairman of the Modern Media Institute, which was renamed the Poynter Institute in 1984.

Nelson Poynter and Eugene Patterson in 1975

At the Times, Hooker writes, Patterson “became a national voice for stricter ethical standards for journalists.”

He derided reporters, particularly television reporters, for their “overbearing elitism. … Rude demeanor on the part of a smart-aleck reporter courts cheap peer approval at the cost of public patience.”

He also instructed his staff to use “shoe-leather, doorbell-ringing reporting” to get tough stories, rather than resorting to deception and subterfuge, as some American reporters had done for decades.

“We’ve inflicted pretty high ethical standards on public and private institutions … in recent years,” he declared, “and I worry a lot about our hypocrisy quotient if we demand government in the sunshine and practice journalism unnecessarily in the shade.”

Patterson was arrested for drunk driving in 1976 and insisted the news “appear on Page 1 to show that the paper could be as hard on its own as it was on others,” Robert D. McFadden writes in The New York Times.

While a Pulitzer Prize judge in 1981, “Patterson refused to join other Pulitzer board members in awarding Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke the prize for her story of a young heroin addict,” Mitch Stacy’s AP obituary for Patterson reads.

Patterson said at the time the story didn’t “smell right,” and said at best the story was “an aberration,” tainted by Cooke’s promise not to disclose information that could help save a child’s life.

Cooke had to return the Pulitzer two days later after admitting she had fabricated the story.

President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Patterson as vice chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1964, and he was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors from 1977-78.

Poynter Vice President and Senior Scholar Roy Peter Clark and University of South Florida professor Raymond Arsenault compiled Patterson’s Atlanta Constitution columns into a 2002 book called “The Changing South of Gene Patterson.” Patterson wrote a book about the 10th Armored Division of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army, in which Patterson served as a tank commander during the Second World War. At the time of his death, he was editing down the King James Bible, Hooker writes.

The Old Testament, he thought, was too dense and difficult. “A lot of people want to come in the house,” Mr. Patterson said of potential readers and believers, “but they can’t get up the steps.”

In Patterson’s final column for the St. Petersburg Times in 1988, he wished young people entering journalism “all the breadth of experience that came my way,”

from the blast of the rockets’ liftoffs at Cape Canaveral to the tumult of 15 national political conventions, from the silence of patrols through the Vietnam elephant grass to the thunder of Dr. King’s ” I have a dream” rolling down from the Lincoln Memorial. And may they all become editors so they’ll share in the quiet reasoning as the editorial board searches daily for wise ways to the public good.

Rep. John Lewis remembers Patterson for his work as both a journalist and a civil rights advocate. In a statement released Monday, he writes:

 “Eugene Patterson, along with his mentor and friend Ralph McGill — the beloved publisher of the Atlanta Constitution — played a major role in moving this nation toward the creation of a new South and a new America. He was an extraordinary journalist who used the power of his pen to articulate a vision of what the South could be. He hoped his words would change hearts and persuade minds to build a truly multiracial democracy in America, and they did. I sat on many panels with him to give meaning to the history we lived together. He was a great friend and a true humanitarian who used his tremendous talents to make a difference in our society. There are not many left like Eugene Patterson. He will be deeply missed.”

Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame, told Poynter that it was a “great honor” to work alongside Patterson.

He had to stand up against his colleagues and associates and work for justice. He never avoided that task even though the days were difficult, the nights long, and the threats constant. It is because of great characters like Gene Patterson that we turned the tide and that justice prevailed in America.  We will forever be grateful to him for his courage, faith and heroism. May he rest in peace. He certainly earned it and well deserves it. 

Related: Journalists remember Gene Patterson

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  • Jim Harper

    You can’t be a great journalist until you’re a good journalist. Among the required skills are curiosity and a human touch.

    Everyone knows about Gene Patterson’s elegant and forceful writing style, his leadership, and his courage to be a conscience to his native land. In the early ‘80s, five years after he hired me to work at the St. Petersburg Times, I got to see his bedrock reporting skills and Southern grace up close.

    I had piggybacked my way into a dinner party at his house. The woman I was dating then had been widowed a year before by one of Gene’s old colleagues from Atlanta; Gene and his wife Sue were doing their best to keep her in the loop. I wasn’t the only tagalong. My date’s visiting aunt, a somewhat gruff and ungainly woman as I recall, also was invited. The other 8 or 9 guests included some of Gene and Sue’s more accomplished friends.

    Gene sat across from my date, her aunt and me. Turned out the aunt was a retired Army nurse who had served in Vietnam. Gene wanted to know all about it. He kept asking questions; her story became more detailed and compelling. Pretty soon she was the life of the party. The rest of us learned a lot about wartime nursing, how to draw out a person’s story — and most of all, how to put one’s most unlikely dinner guest at ease.