Former St. Petersburg Times editor Eugene Patterson was designated a "Great Floridian" last week by Florida's secretary of state. He is a Great Floridian, because he is a great man. In 30 years of knowing him, I never saw him distracted from what was right by short-term considerations or personal convenience.
It might be thought that Gene is not a "real" Floridian, in the sense of the lifelong tenure here that many Great Floridians have. Part of the charm of Florida is that so many of us came from someplace else. What matters is not how long you were here but what you did when you got here.
The St. Petersburg Times is a state treasure. It was owner Nelson Poynter who first made it so, and it was Gene Patterson who kept it so. He hired brilliantly — fine journalists with world perspective and lifelong accomplishments. He moved the Poynter Institute for Media Studies from a tiny old bank building to a waterfront edifice at a time when almost no one was building in that part of town except the University of South Florida. Time magazine once rated his Times as one of the 10 best newspapers in the country.
Dramatic changes in our state were inspired by St. Petersburg Times work under Gene's leadership. Times reporters went to work every day confident, because of the determination of Patterson and Poynter, that they could tell the truth without fear of losing their jobs. When reporters at small papers got in trouble and couldn't afford to defend themselves, Patterson came to their rescue.
When casino gambling threatened Florida in 1978, the Times stood firmly against it. When Florida was ready for Major League Baseball, the Times was there at the forefront of the cause. When the time came to reform Florida sales tax exemptions and take away the exemption for newspaper advertising, the Times stepped forward to support the reform.
Gene, a schoolteacher's kid from Adel, Ga., was chairman and chief executive officer of the newspaper from 1978 until his retirement in 1988. He generously attributed his recognition for greatness to "the work of the men and women of the St. Petersburg Times." But Gene's personal integrity and journalistic accomplishment inspired journalists not just in Florida but other places.
Gene had, and still has, an air of command. He was an officer in Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army in World War II, and certainly embraced that "nuts!" quality of determination regardless of the odds. Gene stated his decisions with simple, logical eloquence. His praise was plentiful, warm and inspiring.
On May 10, 1967, when he was editor of the Atlanta Constitution, Gene got a letter from Martin Luther King Jr. "I have come to the conclusion," King wrote, "that the ultimate measure of a man is not where he finds himself in moments of comfort and moments of convenience, but where he finds himself in moments of challenge and moments of controversy." In Atlanta, voices of courage and wisdom prevailed over voices of hate. Patterson won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorial columns.
When he arrived in St. Petersburg in 1972, Gene shared a dream with Nelson Poynter. "We want to build, here in this town, nothing less than the model American newspaper," Patterson said. "I don't just mean the newsroom. I mean every single department of the newspaper. . . . It's hard to create quality editorial content if you have all the problems of an unhappy paper beating on that newsroom."
Great people have their own heroes, and Gene has his.
In 2002, at age 79, he wrote a piece called "Leadership Isn't Always About Winning: Eight Lessons from a Lifetime of Heroes."
"State your values," Gene wrote. "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."
Gene closed with these words:
"(Leadership) is having the courage to do what's right whether it carries a penalty for you or not, then depending on time and history to make your children proud they're descended from such a leader as you. Whether you're a politician, or a general, or an editor, that's the leadership that matters most to us all at the end of the road, isn't it?''
Most of these Great Floridians are honored in multiple ways for their service to this state. We name them Great Floridians because it tells others what greatness is. Most of them do not need the honor. Indeed, it is they who have honored Florida by bestowing upon all of us their wisdom, their courage and their personal abilities.
Neil Skene, a former reporter, editor and board member of the Times Publishing Co., is a lawyer in Tallahassee. This is adapted from his letter supporting the nomination of Patterson as a "Great Floridian."