Eugene Patterson, the former editor, chairman and chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Times, died Jan. 12 at age 89. A few journalists, former colleagues and readers shared their thoughts and memories:
Former executive editor, the Philadelphia Inquirer
I think he was one of the most important ingredients during the civil rights era, in keeping the South somewhat in balance. Without people like Gene Patterson, when he was editor of the Atlanta Constitution, and his colleague Ralph McGill, I think the resistance in the South could have gotten even more out of hand than it was. Patterson was a confident voice for humanity and sanity during a very tense era in the South. He had this almost incredible magic within him.
His piece about the little girls who were killed in the Birmingham church bombing is probably, I would say, one of the great moments in American commentary. …
He had one of those natural gifts for reaching out to people. He was a born leader, the most gifted writer. He was simply one of the giants of journalism.
Eugene C. Patterson Professor, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University
Gene showed in his own work and the volumes of work he inspired that honesty, courage, humility and humanity are at the heart of great journalism. He set an example of defying convention, and sometimes his audience, by telling the truth.
He was also a champion, as an editor, teacher and writer, of the poetry and literary power of newspaper stories. He was proof that journalism can be a force for good in the world. …
By putting the Patterson chair in a school of public policy rather than a journalism school, Gene and the Times were emphasizing that journalism doesn't exist in a bubble but sits right in the heart of the decisions, events and arguments that affect how people live.
David Barstow, New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winner, former Tampa Bay Times staff writer
Reading the obituary and then watching the video of Mr. Patterson talking about his career and the lost art of rewrite reminded me yet again why I'm so proud to be an alum of Florida's best newspaper. I only met him once during my time in St. Pete. We went for a long lunch I'll never forget. He told these perfectly formed stories about George Patton, Ralph McGill and Nelson Poynter.
Tampa Bay Times senior correspondent
Patterson came to the Times in 1972, more than a year before a Pinellas County prosecutor decided he wanted me to go to jail or reveal the source of a story I had written about a Pasco County grand jury.
"Tell them I ordered you not to reveal the source,'' Patterson insisted the minute a subpoena hit my desk. He was there for every court appearance, chain smoking in hallways and pacing as we waited for appearances before judges and grand juries.
Always confident and consoling, he quickly promised that the Times would provide someone to watch our three children if I ever actually did go to jail. Meanwhile we would fight the subpoenas through every court.
I was worried that our readers might not understand our willingness to let a reporter go to jail instead of complying with a court order. I had always associated jail with bad behavior. Gene was confident folks would understand.
He was right. The day the news broke, retirees started showing up at our office in New Port Richey with loaves of bread and fresh baked cakes. Into each baked item they had inserted hacksaw blades. It was hilarious.
With Gene leading the charge and even at one point writing a letter to explain this to my aging mother, we fought all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. The 1976 ruling in our favor established a limited privilege that has frequently been used to check the power of lawyers and prosecutors who value our testimony more than the First Amendment.
We became friends, a young reporter working up in Pasco County and the venerable editor in chief who had published the Pentagon Papers at the Washington Post and won a Pulitzer writing about the civil rights struggle.
David Finkel, Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur "Genius Award" recipient, former Tampa Bay Times staff writer.
I am so proud to have worked for him and learned journalism through him.
Elithia V. Stanfield, Times reader, Clearwater
My heart grew heavy when I picked up the newspaper this morning and saw that Eugene Patterson had died; just last Sunday, my sister and I were discussing his editing of the Old Testament. My mother expected her children to read the newspaper every day (which we still do). Our major resource: the Atlanta Constitution. Of course she allowed us to pick and choose what to read, but she wanted newspaper ink on our fingers. I was also fortunate to have an advanced reading teacher, in the seventh grade, who required us each week to read and discuss one of Ralph McGill's editorials and to become familiar with editorials in general. These two women aided in my discovery of Mr. Patterson; his writing was always straight to the heart of the matter. His column "A Flower to the Graves" was the talk of the town, particularly the black community.
What a delight when he joined the Times in 1972. I was pursuing my college education at Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College). He brought so much to our local newspaper and this community. His writing, courage and standards should be emulated by all who wish to pursue a career in journalism.
Sandra Mims Rowe, chair, Committee to Protect Journalists, and former chair, the Pulitzer Prizes
I'm thinking of the legions of us who were inspired and touched by Gene. I feel almost as if the last grand old oak tree at the family home has fallen. It's difficult to imagine quite that potent combination of courage, character and talent coming our way again.
Donald E. Graham, chairman and chief executive officer, the Washington Post Co.
One of the greatest.