Twenty-five years ago, Gene Patterson hired me out of a university English department and asked me to spend a year coaching the writers at the St. Petersburg Times. That year was also Gene’s term as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It proved to be a remarkable year for ASNE, one in which the writing coach movement took root, the ASNE Distinguished Writing Awards were established, and a landmark initiative to racially diversify American newspapers was set in place.
Gene Patterson and those events changed the direction of my career. A quarter century later, I had been looking for an opportunity to pay the old man back. It came during a casual lunch conversation at a Spanish-style restaurant near Gene’s St. Petersburg neighborhood.
I told him that I had always wanted to read the columns that he had written for the Atlanta Constitution during the civil rights era. At first he seemed dismissive. I recall that he referred to the columns as “those old things.” Eventually he relented, telling me that if I wanted to taste the columns I could “come on over to the house.” He had them packed away in a closet in his study. The columns were glued into nine large albums, each album representing one year of his editorship, 1960-1968.
I lugged them from his house to my car and from my car to the Poynter Institute. Librarian and archivist Dave Shedden greeted them as if they were the Dead Sea scrolls and with his colleagues spent the next months copying and boxing them into condition for study. After consultation with Southern historian Ray Arsenault, the value of this archeological dig became clearer.
During one of the most significant and tumultuous decades in American history, Gene Patterson kept a daily record of a changing America. More than that, his powerful, persistent and urgent arguments for change helped this country dismantle its version of apartheid in the hope of fulfilling its ideals of freedom and justice for all.
Patterson wrote a column every day for nine years –- every single day. Later he would tell me that if he wrote two columns on a Friday to earn a more leisurely weekend, the second column was always a flop, so he confined himself to the discipline of daily writing.
During a period of about 60 days, I read all 3,200 columns in chronological order. Then I read them again. In previous projects, I had learned to pace myself. Just as Patterson wrote a column each day, each evening I would put my feet up in a recliner at home and make my way steadily through what turned out to be one of the great bodies of work in 20th century journalism.
None of this work could have been accomplished at Poynter during the day. I had other, more regular, responsibilities there and too many distractions. My home office in the evening proved to be the most comfortable workshop for this project. I could easily read a dozen or more columns in an hour and begin to recognize the most precious gems within these treasure boxes.
Over time, with the help of a Poynter pen and a simple rating system (yes, no, maybe), 3,200 columns became 450. Gene and Ray Arsenault read those and offered their suggestions on which columns could go into a book. The University Press of Florida was interested. Now the hard work began: how to whittle more than 400 to 200 and then to 125.
My colleague Chip Scanlan often asks writers and editors “What surprised you?” about a story or project. What surprised me -– what shocked me –- was that I did not understand the true value of the work until after the book was published. Through public readings and book signings in Atlanta and St. Petersburg, I was forced to make additional selections. Which pieces would we share with public audiences, and why? The greatest rigor in writing and editing turns out to be not what to choose, but what to leave out.
Upon reflection, I realize that the idea of “paying the old man back” was full of hubris. The editing of these columns only increased my debt to Gene Patterson, so great was my learning. I learned anew the power that is the product of virtuous journalism. And, oh, how those virtues are made manifest in Gene’s work. I can list them:
- Physical and moral courage
- Outrage against injustice
- Tolerance and a hunger for racial equality
- Empathy and a sense of community
- Basic human decency made manifest in courtesy
- Fidelity and loyalty to a region and a people
- Belief in democratic freedoms and the power of the word
In a family, the fulfillment of a legacy comes down from one generation to the next. We have received what you have given us, Gene Patterson, and are passing it down to the next generation of journalists. The last century was yours. As you’ve said so often in these past months, now it’s our turn.
The book is “The Changing South of Gene Patterson: Journalism and Civil Rights 1960-1968,” edited by Roy Peter Clark and Raymond Arsenault. University Press of Florida, 2002.