When the Grim Reaper finally came for Eugene Corbett Patterson, the 89 year old Pulitzer Prize winner surely did not blink. Fear was not in his character and anyway, he had seen death before.
Patterson, who will be interred March 13 at Arlington National Cemetery, had always been a man of great ambition. Preparing to meet his Maker at his Brightwaters Blvd. home last year, he passed the time ruthlessly red-penciling the King James Bible. “Chord: The Old Testament Condensed” is an old newsman’s last service to seekers of truth in an attention deficit disordered world.
In the 1970s and ‘80s when Patterson called the shots at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida journalism was widely recognized as the best in the world, and the St. Petersburg Times was recognized as Florida’s best newspaper by everybody who didn’t work for the Miami Herald.
Death had tried and failed to claim Patterson when he was a 20 year old tank commander at the Battle of the Bulge. In General Patton’s 10thArmored Division, Patterson learned verbal, sartorial and blood and guts elements of style that would inform how he led by example from the Ardennes Forest to the hour of his death.
Patterson, whose wardrobe was always as well tailored as his words, had this advice for the CEO of anything: “State your values. Then state them again, and again, and again, until the people you lead can have no doubt about your own devotion to your guiding standards and principles, and your insistence that those values guide them.”
State his values he did, to countless journalists who hung on his every word.
I was one of them in the summer of 1972. Afflicted with a bad case of “the romance of journalism”, I sought Patterson’s blessing to blow off my parents’ advice to get a law degree. I was devastated—but persuaded—when he sided with my parents.
Simple declarative sentences poured out of him, seemingly effortlessly, to form complete paragraphs that won hearts, changed lives, and stuck in minds forever. As editor of the Atlanta Constitution, Patterson stated his values in a signed column every single day, Christmas included, from 1960-1968. Patterson believed that if something was worth saying once, it was worth saying every day, with irresistible force, until immovable objects bent to your will.
For Patterson and his mentors at Cox Newspapers, the immovable object was the hatred and violence of the Jim Crow South.
Patterson was born in 1923 near Adel, Georgia, a time and place where racism was in the air everybody breathed. But his formidable mother planted within him a love for humanity and a curiosity about everybody, and he had a lot of time during the war to think about where bigotry always goes.
From the day he launched his signed column in 1960 to his Pulitzer in 1967 to the day in 1968 when Ben Bradlee tapped him to be his managing editor at the Washington Post, Patterson made the case for racial justice, 700 words at a time.
Having faced down the Nazis in Belgium, the Klan in Atlanta, and the Nixon Administration during the Pentagon Papers years at the Post, Patterson arrived in St Petersburg with no need to prove his manhood. He was not one to surround himself with lackeys.
Take Patterson’s first hire, Roy Peter Clark, PhD., then a professor of medieval literature at the University of Alabama. Patterson saw in Clark a teacher who could help reporters turn dry facts into riveting stories, and turned him loose on the Times newsroom.
Reporters’ reaction ranged from hostile to homicidal at the notion of a new editor—even if he did have a Pulitzer—paying some punk professor to tell them how to do their jobs. It might have gotten ugly, but fate lent a hand when Elvis Presley died and Patterson, whose musical tastes were formed in the era of Sinatra supremacy, took it upon himself in his Sunday column to expound upon Elvis ’place in history.
By the time reporters got to the paper on Monday, Clark had barbecued Patterson’s ruminations in a Memo to Staff tacked to the newsroom bulletin board. Patterson’s column was Exhibit A to Clark’s commentary on why journalists should never, ever write on anything about which they know nothing.
When 5 o’clock came and Clark had not been fired, the staff knew that their new boss was serious about freedom of expression.
The limits of his patience with in-house management critics would be tested on a bigger stage the next year when publisher Patterson made “a business decision” to donate a pile of Times’ cash to Gov Reubin Askew’s campaign against the first proponents of casino gambling in Florida.
Traditionally, newspaper owners fight their political battles with words on their editorial pages. That’s because contributions to politicians’ war chests fuel reader suspicion that reporters might be putting their pens down on the side where people who sign their paychecks have put their money.
Patterson thought the Times could help finance Askew’s casino crusade without violating readers’ trust in the fairness and accuracy of the paper’s reporting.
Many in his newsroom disagreed. Loudly and publicly, they denounced and disassociated themselves from what they viewed as a serious breach of faith with readers.
Patterson could have muzzled his staff. But he didn’t.
He believed in his own voice enough to tolerate dissent. Of the many life lessons Gene Patterson taught, that may be the most important of all.