Legendary newspaper editor Eugene Patterson died Saturday night at 89. As former editor of the Atlanta Constitution and the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), Patterson is remembered for his journalism excellence, his leadership, and his civil rights advocacy. Journalists who knew him shared their recollections with Poynter Sunday morning:
Eugene Roberts, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer:
I think he was one of the most important ingredients during the civil rights era, in keeping the south somewhat in balance. Without people like Gene Patterson, when he was editor of the Atlanta Constitution and his colleague Ralph McGill, I think the resistance in the South could have gotten even more out of hand than it was. Patterson was a confident voice for humanity and sanity during a very tense era in the South. He had this almost incredible magic within him.
His piece about the little girls who were killed in the Birmingham church bombing is probably, I would say, one of the great moments in American commentary.
… He had one of those natural gifts for reaching out to people. He was a born leader, the most gifted writer. He was simply one of the giants of journalism.
Karen Kemp, assistant dean for communications and marketing at Duke University:
Patterson played an influential role in the formative days of the Sanford School of Public Policy and its DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. He taught in the public policy program from 1971 to 1972. Patterson also served on the Duke Board of Trustees from 1988 to 1994 and holds an honorary doctorate from Duke, awarded in 1978. A faculty position endowed by a gift from the Poynter Fund — the Eugene C. Patterson Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy — is named in his honor and is held by Phil Bennett, former managing editor of The Washington Post.
Joel Fleishman, founding director of the Sanford Institute, noted in a 2009 speech that Sanford’s early focus on the role of the media in governing was unique among policy programs. The program that became the Dewitt Wallace Center for the Media and Democracy was the first of its kind in a policy school, and its first courses were offered by Patterson.
Phil Bennett, the Eugene C. Patterson Professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke:
Gene showed in his own work and the volumes of work he inspired that honesty, courage, humility and humanity are at the heart of great journalism. He set an example of defying convention, and sometimes his audience, by telling the truth.
He was also a champion, as an editor, teacher and writer, of the poetry and literary power of newspaper stories. He was proof that journalism can be a force for good in the world.
… I’d say by way of lead in that by putting the Patterson chair in a school of public policy, rather than a journalism school, Poynter and Gene were emphasizing that journalism doesn’t exist in a bubble, but sits right in the heart of the decisions, events and arguments that affect how people live.
Karen Dunlap, president of The Poynter Institute:
In 1985, I had offers to teach at a university in Tampa and one in Texas.
In part I chose Florida because I knew there was a great newspaper in Tampa Bay then called the St. Petersburg Times and a man there whom I had read about and admired named Gene Patterson.
Shortly after I moved, I was invited to the opening of the Poynter building and in the receiving line I shook hands with Gene Patterson. It was a thrill.
The last time we talked was in the Gene Patterson Collection at Poynter, where he and my husband told each other war stories and Gene reminisced about the Civil Rights movement.
Always the gentleman, always the great storyteller. It was a privilege to know Gene Patterson.