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Advocate for open government is dead at 78

Forty years ago, at a time when Florida government boards often met in secret, a dogged reporter wrote about it so much that wags at St. Petersburg City Hall nicknamed him "Secret Meeting Charlie."

For 29 years, Charles M. Patrick bearded the powerful and championed the powerless in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times.

As a reporter and then an editorial writer, he covered local government during an era of rapid change. He covered Pinellas County Schools as they passed from segregation to desegregation. He covered the people whom society seemed to cast aside: the abused youths, the frail elderly, the mentally ill. And he covered them all in tight, graceful prose that made him a role model.

On Saturday (Jan. 24, 2004), Mr. Patrick died at Bayfront Medical Center after a monthslong battle with lung disease and cancer. He was 78.

"The English language claimed Charles Patrick as its close friend," editor emeritus Eugene Patterson said. "He could move swiftly to the center of large events, receive patches of information from dozens of hurried reporters, see the pattern and sew the quilt.

"His mastery of our craft built the high quality of his own character into the pages, and the history, of the St. Petersburg Times."

Mr. Patrick grew up in Ashland, Ky., served in the Navy during World War II and graduated from the University of Kentucky. He spent several months as a typist on Wall Street and knocked around Europe for a year before going to work for newspapers in Huntington, W.Va., and Ashland.

He landed in St. Petersburg by chance. He and his parents were driving through town on vacation in 1954 when he spied the St. Petersburg Evening Independent building. On a whim, he stopped, inquired about employment and was hired on the spot.

Five years later, the Times hired him away to cover City Hall.

In the 1950s and '60s, government-in-secret was the pattern in Florida. Whenever an issue seemed likely to get delicate, many elected officials liked to conduct business in private.

The Times and other newspapers fought back. Once, when the City Council sneaked away to meet at a nearby restaurant, Mr. Patrick and another reporter discovered the hideout, eavesdropped during the meeting and described the proceedings in the next day's paper.

A few years later, when the Pinellas School Board barred Mr. Patrick from a meeting, the Times filed a lawsuit that helped reaffirm a new state law requiring open meetings.

"Charlie was the kind of reporter every editor covets," said Donald K. Baldwin, a top Times editor from 1958 to 1972. "He refused to be intimidated by threats, and he could not be persuaded to change or eliminate a story to please a source. I am sure that Charlie's work contributed substantially to passage of Florida's first Government-in-the-Sunshine Law."

At his desk in the newsroom, Mr. Patrick made writing look excruciating. As deadline loomed, he would stare through the smoke of an ever-present cigarette while his agitated fingers tattooed the space bar of his typewriter.

He would write, rewrite and then rewrite again, never satisfied with the precise, artful results that sometimes left colleagues in awe.

When Mr. Patrick retired in January 1988, Patterson paid tribute to his writing: "The music will go on, but it will be like losing the first chair violin."

Survivors include a sister, Helen Jo Kinner, Ashland; a brother, James W. Patrick, a former copy editor at the Evening Independent, St. Petersburg; and eight nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Anderson-McQueen Funeral Homes & Cremation Tribute Center-Ninth Street Chapel, 2201 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N.

Former St. Petersburg Times reporter Charles M. Patrick was a champion of society's underdogs.