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Eugene Patterson's final column for the Times

Editor's note: This is the final column Eugene Patterson wrote as president of the Times Publishing Co. It appeared on Oct. 30, 1988, under the headline "Saying farewell to a long and rewarding career in journalism.''

You'll note my name is coming off the masthead now. I turned 65 this month and decided 41 years in the news arena was plenty. So I'm hanging up the gloves and retiring to play with my grandchildren and write a book or two.

Control of the Times Publishing Company passes to Andy Barnes, my designated hitter, who will run it well. Not yet 50, he came down with me from the Washington Post and proved he could play all the positions with elan and lead with the right vision.

This is a note of thanks to you always-faithful and often-forgiving readers who have made my 17 years at the St. Petersburg Times the best. And it is a love letter about the news business to those young people who are interested in journalism but who may wonder if there's a better way to make a living. I can't imagine that there is.

When a working life comes down, as the psalmist said, to a tale that is told, a Georgia farm boy can only look back with astonishment at his luck on entering a line of work that enabled him to get to know every American president since Franklin Roosevelt, all eight of them. (Most likable: Harry Truman, for being his brash and unaffected self. Most likely to be noted longest in history, I think: Lyndon Johnson, for his politically costly courage, as a Southerner, in freeing black Americans from the bondage of legal segregation, concluding the Civil War at last.)

Inelegant assignments come along too. Hasn't every reporter covered a rodeo and an armadillo fair in Texas? Or crushingly sad ones: the dying in a Georgia emergency room of a young automobile wreck victim — a bride on her wedding night. Or scarring scenes that will haunt one: a young black man strapped into the South Carolina electric chair for the rape of a white woman (who was present in the death chamber to watch) asking, when the warden invited his last words, "Will it hurt?"

There were the train wrecks on Long Island and the airplane crashes in New Jersey but to a young reporter a-gawk in New York City, the celebrities were the sights. We retirees are the only one who'll remember Mary Garden but I interviewed her at the Pierre! Gypsy Rose Lee made my lead for the day when I phoned her for a quote on a mid-winter power failure that was cutting off heat in the city. "Honey," said that wonderful stripper, "I'm gettin' out my fur-lined G-string." I buttonholed Thomas E. Dewey in the lobby of the Roosevelt and waylaid Columbia University President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the basement of Pennsylvania Station before he could get in his limousine.

London in the middle 1950s opened the door to Europe. Would you believe these eyes saw Sir Winston Churchill perform as Prime Minister at question time in the House of Commons, and examined his hapless successor Sir Anthony Eden in a press conference at 10 Downing Street; watched Queen Elizabeth II close-up at investitures in Buckingham Palace and witnessed Princess Margaret's sorrow when she had to give up Group Capt. Peter Townsend, the man she loved but couldn't marry because he was divorced; tracked the Soviet leaders Khrushchev and Bulganin down Geneva streets at the summit conference of 1955, and in Monaco saw the wedding of the American actress Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier.

But, thinks the young career-shopper, can a newspaper reporter hope ever to escape the rush and engage in an important issue in depth, over time? Yes, more than a decade's editorial work in Atlanta centered on the civil rights revolution that ramified into every political, social and economic institution in the South. Feeling that mountainous issue begin to move forward rewarded me the most. And I can tell my grandchildren I knew Martin Luther King Jr. and worked at the Constitution alongside Ralph McGill.

Many of our luncheon guests in Katharine Graham's dining room at the Washington Post during the Nixon era were transients in the halls of power — John Erlichman, John Mitchell, Henry Kissinger, Ed Muskie, George McGovern and the rest.

But in St. Petersburg in early 1975, one guest who came for lunch told us he aimed to win high office the next year and he did stick around the power alley for a while. The name was Jimmy Carter.

Then there's been the story of Florida's emergence as America's fourth largest state and Tampa Bay's evolution into Florida's largest city, with all the heady news and human stories attendant to that. We have problems to solve as well as cheers to lead, though.

I worry some about the drift away from the political center in America to the extent that left and right, conservative and liberal, hawk and dove seem thought to be necessary to define us as citizens. With respect to such extremes, I go back to Thucydides: "A nation that draws too broad a difference between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools."

It has been rewarding to help engage a community in conversation with itself, which is what Walter Lippmann called the role of a newspaper. To the young who may choose a life in the news business, I wish them all the breadth of experience that came my way, from the blast of the rockets' liftoffs at Cape Canaveral to the tumult of 15 national political conventions, from the silence of patrols through the Vietnam elephant grass to the thunder of Dr. King's " I have a dream" rolling down from the Lincoln Memorial. And may they all become editors so they'll share in the quiet reasoning as the editorial board searches daily for wise ways to the public good.

Walker Percy wrote that none of us expect to affect history more than an infinitesimal amount, but that we have to try. I think, all told, the world may be a little better than it was when I came into the reporting trade, and I leave believing the good guys are going to find a way to win this thing in the end.

Eugene Patterson's final column for the Times 01/12/13 [Last modified: Saturday, January 12, 2013 11:07pm]
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