Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Recalling personal moment with the great Gene Patterson

Eugene Patterson was called to testify in the libel case of a former Pasco County sheriff.

Times (1984)

Eugene Patterson was called to testify in the libel case of a former Pasco County sheriff.

Gene Patterson's passing last week at age 89 inspired several tributes, including veteran journalist Rob Hooker's sterling front-page obituary in this newspaper.

I had considered writing something but fumbled to describe my feelings about the only man beside my father that I considered a hero.

As I sit here typing today, I still feel strangely inadequate. But I do want to share a story with you, something that has stuck in my mind for almost 22 years, a conversation in a room not much larger than a closet at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa.

I had been dreading the day, knowing I would be called to testify in a libel trial brought by former Pasco County Sheriff John M. Short. He had blamed the Times for ruining his life in a series of stories in 1983 and 1984 that outlined corruption in his department. The newspaper and reporters Lucy Morgan and Jack Reed won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

Now, some bulldog lawyer was about to grill me about those stories, produced while I was the Times' city editor in Pasco. I waited in that tiny witness room with Kathleen Ovack, a young reporter who had covered the Sheriff's Office. We had no idea the bailiffs would send a third person into that room.

Gene Patterson took a seat. He had retired a few years earlier after leading the Times for 16 years. Short's lawyers wanted a crack at him, too.

Of course we knew Gene's history as a journalistic icon who had crusaded for civil rights at the Atlanta Constitution in the early 1960s. We knew he had been a tank commander lieutenant routing the Nazis with Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army in the Battle of the Bulge.

"Have you ever gone back to Europe?'' I asked him.

Yes, he said, he had returned to a village where in 1944 he had assembled his troops in the center square. A motorcycle with sidecar roared around a brick building, carrying two German soldiers. When the driver saw the Americans, he slammed on the brakes, flipping the bike and sending the two soldiers flying.

Lt. Patterson pointed his rifle and ordered, "Hande hoch! (Hands up!)'' One soldier surrendered; the other ran back toward the brick building, which stood next to an apple orchard. "Halt!'' Patterson yelled, his finger squeezing the trigger.

Had the soldier escaped, Patterson feared, he would give away the patrol's position. Just as the man was about to turn the corner, Patterson fired. He saw the bullet nick the edge of a brick. Dust flew. He ran to the building, turned the corner and on the ground lay the German soldier.

"Did that bother you?'' I asked.

He paused only briefly and said no, that this was war and soldiers died and had this German escaped it would have meant trouble. But then Patterson explained he had thought often about that soldier and how he had died so young "and how I had so many more years of life.'' He talked about his wife and daughter and the joy they had brought him.

When he returned to that village, he marveled at how much of the Old World remains unchanged compared to our part of Florida, where whole cities spring up overnight. He walked several yards from that center square toward the apple orchard. He stared at the ground where the dead soldier fell.

The only change, he said: The trees were bigger.

The building still stood. He put his finger where his bullet had nicked the brick.

• • •

When we learned Gene Patterson had died, Kathleen Ovack and I thought about that day in the courthouse. We exchanged notes on Facebook, grateful to have experienced such an intimate moment with such a great man.

As a soldier, his valor in combat earned a Silver Star. As a journalist, he used his gift to rally fellow white Southerners against racism and earned his profession's highest award. I was honored to work for him.

On that day in Tampa, he left the small witness room and put his hand on the Bible. I had already testified and sat in the audience as he, in that same clear voice that painted pictures and commanded attention, defended his reporters and stories to the jurors. He, naturally, accepted full responsibility.

Lucy Morgan will never forget what he said.

"If Lucy wrote it, it was so.''

The jury not only found for the newspaper, it said all the stories were true. I'm certain Mr. Patterson's words remained in their minds as they deliberated, much as they remain in mine all these years later.

If Gene Patterson wrote it or said it, it was so.

Recalling personal moment with the great Gene Patterson 01/15/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 8:16pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Why the Lightning would consider trading Jonathan Drouin

    Lightning Strikes

    TAMPA — This summer, the Lightning could trade one of its most dynamic young players ever.

    Wing Jonathan Drouin could be the only piece that Tampa Bay has to acquire a badly needed top-tier defenseman.
  2. Ryan Hunter-Reay running strong as he seeks a second Indianapolis 500 title

    Auto racing

    Ryan Hunter-Reay isn't a big jewelry fan.

    Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won Indy in 2014, is a contender for a second title in today’s 101st running. He qualified 10th, had the third-fastest practice lap and his team is looking strong.
  3. As Trump's overseas trip ends, crisis grows at home (w/video)


    President Donald Trump headed home Saturday to confront a growing political and legal threat, as his top aides tried to contain the fallout from reports that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is a focus of investigations into possible collusion between Russia and the president's campaign and transition teams.

    President Donald Trump waves as he exits Marine One on Saturday at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, Italy. After a nine-day trip overseas, the president is returning to Washington.
  4. Tributes pour in for Zbigniew Brzezinski, an 'influential voice' in politics (w/video)


    WASHINGTON — Well before he went to the White House in 1977, Jimmy Carter was impressed by the views of foreign policy expert Zbigniew Brzezinski. That Carter immediately liked the Polish-born academic advising his campaign was a plus.

    Foreign policy expert Zbigniew Brzezinski died Friday.
  5. One year after deaths, Sunset Music Festival kicks off with emphasis on water and security

    Public Safety

    TAMPA — Before the beat drops, or even builds, you hear Steve-O.

    "If you don't get water you're lame!"

    "Hey! Free water! Come on!"

    Steve "Steve-O" Raymond motions to guests making the line to grab free water bottle at the entrance of the Sunset Music Festival on the grounds of the Raymond James Stadium parking lot in Tampa. ( LUIS SANTANA   |   Times)