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.