Former Times editor Eugene Patterson, who championed civil rights and journalistic excellence, dies at 89

Published Jan. 13, 2013|Updated Dec. 17, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Eugene Patterson, a journalist who crusaded for civil rights in American society and higher standards in America's newsrooms, died Saturday after a long illness.

The former editor, chairman and chief executive officer of the Times was 89.

During his 41 years in journalism, Mr. Patterson won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, served as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and led the Times through an era of rapid growth and recognition by Time magazine as one of America's 10 best newspapers.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Patterson wrote courageous columns for the Atlanta Constitution exhorting whites to acknowledge their responsibility for the racial fracture of the South. His most famous piece ran after four young black girls died in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963.

"If our South is ever to be what we wish it to be," he wrote, "we will plant a flower of nobler resolve for the South now upon these four small graves that we dug."

After moving to St. Petersburg in 1972, Mr. Patterson expanded the Times' local and foreign coverage, and imbued his staff with higher standards on reporting, writing and ethics. Twice in his tenure, the paper won the prestigious Pulitzer.

"Gene's clear voice called a generation of us to newspapering and to responsibility," said Andrew Barnes, who succeeded Mr. Patterson as chairman and chief executive when he retired in 1988. "He had no equal."

Added Paul C. Tash, who succeeded Barnes in May 2004: "Gene Patterson could fill up a room simply by walking into it, and he could pierce to the heart of an issue in fewer words than anybody else. As I make my own way as a journalist and a leader, his example remains one of the great landmarks."

'I just liked the smell'

Mr. Patterson was born Oct. 15, 1923, in Valdosta, Ga., the son of a bank cashier and a schoolteacher.

His father lost his job and life savings in a Depression bank failure when Mr. Patterson was in the second grade, and the family was forced to move to a small farm near Adel.

"Suddenly we were left with nothing," Mr. Patterson once recalled. "I remember my mother standing in front of the fireplace, crying, and I had no concept of what a 'busted bank' meant."

The elder Patterson spent the rest of his life in a series of minor banking jobs. It fell to his wife, "the driving spirit in our family," to teach school and work the 50-acre, two-mule farm with her two sons and daughter.

The Pattersons' house had no plumbing, no electricity, no heat except for a fireplace and stove. Mr. Patterson worked around the farm and did his homework by the light of a kerosene lamp in the living room.

The redheaded teenager got his introduction to newspapers at the Adel News, where the elderly publisher let him help out on weekends. "I just liked the smell of the place," Mr. Patterson once said. He also covered sports for the high school newspaper.

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Mr. Patterson financed his first year at North Georgia College with the $300 profit he made on the family's yearly tobacco crop. He earned his laundry money by writing weekly English themes for other students.

Years later, Mr. Patterson bumped into his old English professor and confessed that he had ghostwritten papers at 10 cents each.

"He said, 'As I recall, that's about what they were worth.' "

'Berlin tomorrow'

Mr. Patterson earned his bachelor's degree in journalism at the University of Georgia in 1943. By the next year, he was commanding a tank platoon as Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army drove through the German ranks.

"There's no way you could move the way he (Patton) wanted you to," Mr. Patterson once recalled. "He wanted Berlin tomorrow morning. But at least you realized you had a blowtorch behind you — this general expects us to fight. And then a pride set in that army because the division did fight. And he committed us in ways that we very quickly learned were saving lives."

Mr. Patterson was Patton's kind of soldier. He won a Silver Star for gallantry in action and a Bronze Star with oak leaf cluster for heroic achievement. And for the rest of his life, he had a military air about him, from his erect bearing and precise dress to the crisp instructions he gave subordinates. When he came to St. Petersburg, the staff dubbed him "the Tank Commander."

Mr. Patterson intended to make the military his career. When the war ended, he stayed in the Army and won his wings as a pilot. In his free time, he tried to write short stories and a novel about the war. "And it suddenly dawned on me that there were two things wrong. One was that I couldn't write. And the other was that I didn't know anything."

In 1947, Mr. Patterson resigned from the Army. He found a job as a cub reporter on the staff of a small Texas paper, the Temple Daily Telegram.

The green journalist moved from Temple to Macon, Ga., where editor Joe Parham remarked that he "stands barely five feet tall with all hackles raised." Mr. Patterson then joined United Press (now United Press International), which moved him to Atlanta, Columbia, S.C., and then New York. "I thought I'd conquered the world — 80 bucks a week and New York City," he quipped years later.

Gradually, he learned how to write. He read and learned what he called "the melody" of the written word, practiced it in the always-against-a-deadline world of the wire services, and then fine-tuned it as a daily columnist in Atlanta.

Years later in St. Petersburg, as a prominent figure in American journalism and supervisor of dozens of reporters, Mr. Patterson bridled at what he called the graceless writing in most newspapers.

"I've always had a short temper when it comes to seeing a poorly written paper," he said. "This is our job. If we can't use the language, who can?"

In 1977, he brought in an English professor to spend a year as his staff's writing coach. He also made effective writing a top priority when he served as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1977-78.

'The stony truth'

After four years in New York, Mr. Patterson became United Press bureau manager in London in 1953. From there, he covered Winston Churchill's final years as prime minister, the 1955 summit conference in Geneva and the wedding of Grace Kelly.

It was Churchill's resignation in 1954 that produced what Mr. Patterson called the favorite "lead" (first paragraph) of his career. After watching a tearful Churchill turn over the seals of office, Mr. Patterson crafted a story that began:

"The blood and sweat part of glorious history now, Sir Winston Churchill resigned in tears today as British prime minister."

In 1956 Mr. Patterson met George Biggers, then publisher of the Atlanta newspapers, the Journal and Constitution. Biggers liked him and brought him back to Georgia, first as an editorial writer, then executive editor of both papers at age 32.

In Atlanta, Mr. Patterson found a friend and mentor in the legendary Ralph McGill, the editor who helped change the mind of the segregated South.

McGill, who was often vilified for his views on race, taught his protege to display his real feelings in print. "McGill had this pursuit of the stony truth just built into him, no matter where the chips had to fall," Mr. Patterson recalled. "And so he taught me to tell the truth, to quit beating around the bush, to quit hiding my convictions, in the hope of pleasing my readers, but instead to lead."

In time, Mr. Patterson joined McGill as a champion of racial justice, urging his white kinsmen to "rectify, not justify" decades of segregation and inequality. For several years Mr. Patterson served as vice chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

"I just went out into the center of the ring beside him and we swung away until we felt the mountain begin to move," he recalled. "To feel the homeland I love beginning to think again and start to shed its shackle of racial wrongs set the benchmark of my working life."

After the Birmingham church bombing that killed the four girls, Mr. Patterson wrote about an anguished mother who stood holding her dead daughter's shoe — a shoe that Mr. Patterson turned into an emotional symbol.

"Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand," he wrote. "It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite . … We are the ones who have ducked the difficult, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable and created the day surely when these children would die."

Four years later, forceful writing like that helped Mr. Patterson win a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. One editorial blistered the Georgia General Assembly for refusing to seat Julian Bond because of his opposition to the Vietnam War — a war that Mr. Patterson then supported.

In 1968, Mr. Patterson left Atlanta for Washington, D.C., where for three years he was managing editor of the Washington Post.

It was a heady time to be a newspaper executive in the nation's capital, which was caught up in the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers case. But Mr. Patterson grew restless playing second fiddle to the Post's domineering executive editor, Benjamin C. Bradlee, and eventually left.

It was in Washington that Mr. Patterson grew to know Nelson Poynter, the chairman and principal owner of the Times. The Pattersons lived close to Poynter's apartment in Washington, and the two men became social friends and philosophical soulmates.

'You will succeed me'

Mr. Patterson was teaching and starting a book at Duke University in 1971 when he got Poynter's offer to come to St. Petersburg as editor of the Times and president of Times Publishing Co.

Mr. Patterson consulted Duke president Terry Sanford, a former governor of North Carolina, who suggested that he ought to have a contract before agreeing to come.

A few days later, Mr. Patterson said, he got a letter from Poynter. "If you take this job, you will succeed me and you can set your pay at whatever level you want. Is that a good enough contract for Terry Sanford?"

It was.

In Poynter, Mr. Patterson soon had a supporter like Ralph McGill. Like McGill, Poynter was a fiercely independent journalist who refused to play to the gallery of expediency on any public issue.

The Times was among the first major newspapers in the South to endorse the U.S. Supreme Court's school desegregation decision in 1954. The courtly Poynter also made his newspaper a pioneer in the use of color and informational graphics, in typesetting and printing, in consumer and environmental reporting, and in crusading for unpopular causes.

Nothing Poynter ever did was more extraordinary than his ultimate disposition of the Times and Evening Independent (an afternoon paper he bought in 1962). He feared that, at his death, his heirs would be forced to sell the papers to pay the estate taxes, and that the papers might then become the property of a chain.

Poynter's solution was to create a nonprofit educational institution, now called the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, to which he left the majority of the newspapers' stock. To vote that stock, he named a successor — Gene Patterson.

'Explanatory journalism'

Once in St. Petersburg, Mr. Patterson moved to put his stamp on the paper. His Sunday columns became a model of the good writing that he preached to the staff. Square-shouldered and cocksure, he put an emphasis on aggressive reporting, setting the tone for a staff that disclosed corruption from courthouses to the corridors of Congress.

It was not enough to expose the rascals, however. Mr. Patterson instructed his reporters to make their stories clear, artful and complete, so that readers might understand the full context of an event.

He called it "explanatory journalism." In reporting complex issues like welfare, energy and inflation, he said, it was vital to avoid reporting "on the installment plan; you need to explain them whole."

Mr. Patterson became a national voice for stricter ethical standards for journalists. He derided reporters, particularly television reporters, for their "overbearing elitism. … Rude demeanor on the part of a smart-aleck reporter courts cheap peer approval at the cost of public patience."

He also instructed his staff to use "shoe-leather, doorbell-ringing reporting" to get tough stories, rather than resorting to deception and subterfuge, as some American reporters had done for decades.

"We've inflicted pretty high ethical standards on public and private institutions … in recent years," he declared, "and I worry a lot about our hypocrisy quotient if we demand government in the sunshine and practice journalism unnecessarily in the shade."

When Mr. Patterson was arrested in 1976 for driving while intoxicated, he ordered that it be reported on Page 1A. Most DWI arrests are not mentioned by the Times, and Mr. Patterson's subordinates argued that, at most, his arrest warranted only a few paragraphs somewhere in the local section.

Mr. Patterson was adamant, however. The editor of a newspaper has "to be able to say for the rest of his life, 'I put myself on Page 1, so you can't ask me not to put you there,' '' he said.

Under Mr. Patterson's leadership, the Times grew rapidly, from an average daily circulation of 171,869 in 1972 to 329,575 in 1988. (The average daily circulation today is 313,003.) The Times became the predominant paper in Pasco and Hernando counties as well as Pinellas. It also became the largest paper between Washington and Miami, and the 23rd largest paper in the country (now it is 21st on Sunday, 15th daily). And in 1987, the Times moved into Hillsborough County to take on the Tampa Tribune in its own back yard.

The Patterson era also saw Congressional Quarterly go online early in the computer age. Times Publishing founded Governing magazine as a CQ spinoff, acquired Florida Trend magazine and built the Poynter Institute's headquarters on the St. Petersburg bayfront.

When the newspaper changed its name to the Tampa Bay Times in 2012, Mr. Patterson supported the decision. "Adhering interests bridged the bay into one metropolis of common character and united aims," he said. "So it is natural and right to broaden the newspaper's name now to fit the reality."

Mr. Patterson received many honors. He was recognized in 1991 by the Society of Professional Journalists for a life spent contributing to his craft. The society's Atlanta chapter presented him with the Ralph McGill Award for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism.

He won the William Allen White award for journalistic merit from the University of Kansas in 1979, and was a member of the board of the Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia University for 11 years.

Disappointments and a feud

Yet Mr. Patterson's forceful personality did not always prevail in causes, public and private, that were important to him.

For all its successes, the paper never gained a toehold in the counties south of Pinellas. And Mr. Patterson and Times editorial writers were unable to sway public opinion on certain key issues, particularly proposals for a north-south expressway in Pinellas and a shopping-recreation complex along the St. Petersburg waterfront called Pier Park.

In 1979, Mr. Patterson's private appeal to then-Gov. Bob Graham failed to stop the execution of John Spenkelink.

Because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Florida had not executed anyone for 15 years. Spenkelink's crime, the murder of a fellow drifter, had seemed so insignificant compared with most murders that the state offered him the chance to plead guilty to second-degree murder — a deal that probably would have led to parole after a few years. But Spenkelink refused the deal, and Graham signed his death warrant.

Mr. Patterson sat up late the night before the scheduled execution. "I didn't want to see Florida go back to killing people," he told Times reporter Lucy Morgan in 2003.

So Mr. Patterson telephoned the governor's mansion at 2 a.m., woke Graham and reminded him how a courageous Georgia governor named John Slaton had commuted a death sentence to life imprisonment in 1915 because the case was so shaky.

Graham was noncommital, Mr. Patterson said, and a few hours later Spenkelink was executed.

There were other disappointments as well. In November 1986, the Evening Independent was closed and merged with the Times after 79 years of publication. Two of the state business magazines that were launched by Times Publishing Co. under Mr. Patterson were failures, too. Arizona Trend was folded, and Georgia Trend was sold.

Perhaps no challenge was as daunting as one that developed as Mr. Patterson prepared to retire in 1988. A long-simmering dispute between Nelson Poynter and his sister, Eleanor Poynter Jamison, erupted a year after Mrs. Jamison's death.

Her two daughters inherited their mother's minority stake in the newspaper company and, unable to reach agreement on a sale price with Mr. Patterson, sold it to a group led by Texas billionaire Robert M. Bass.

There followed a two-year feud, in the courts of public opinion and law, over ownership of the paper.

Even in retirement, Mr. Patterson was eloquent in defending the newspaper against what he called "classic 1980s-style bust-up corporate raiders" intent on quick profit. As both sides jockeyed for position, Mr. Patterson wrote to thousands of journalists comparing Bass' motives with the public-service legacy of Poynter.

The feud ended in August 1990. In a settlement reached out of court, the Bass group agreed to sell its shares to the Times for $56 million. That brought all of the stock under the newspaper's control.

When he was asked several years earlier what he considered the Times' biggest achievement, Mr. Patterson pointed to "the assembling here of a staff and a corps of executives that represent what I feel is the top level of American journalism."

"We have taken the values that Nelson Poynter laid down, and we've given them life," he said. "We're increasingly creating a newspaper where the very best talent in American journalism can spend a lifetime."

In retirement, he served on the boards of trustees of Duke University and the LeRoy Collins Center for Public Policy at Florida State University. A chair in journalism is endowed in his name at Duke.

He received honorary degrees from 15 institutions, including Harvard, Duke, Emory and Indiana universities, the University of South Florida, Tuskegee Institute, Eckerd College and St. Petersburg Junior College.

Mr. Patterson devoted the last months of his life to an audacious personal project — editing the King James Bible. The Old Testament, he thought, was too dense and difficult. "A lot of people want to come in the house," Mr. Patterson said of potential readers and believers, "but they can't get up the steps."

A farewell column

Mr. Patterson said he wanted to be remembered "as a publisher who held the public interest above private advantage or adulation, and as an editor who owed help first to those who couldn't help themselves."

Mr. Patterson left with a goodbye-to-readers column that was vintage Patterson. He thanked "you always-faithful and often-forgiving readers who have made my 17 years at the St. Petersburg Times the best." He also made a recruiting pitch.

"To the young who may choose a life in the news business," he wrote, "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."

Sue Patterson, Mr. Patterson's wife of 48 years, died in 1998. Survivors include his daughter, Mary Patterson Fausch of Raleigh, N.C. and St. Petersburg; three granddaughters, Laura Carter Fausch and Emily Carr Fausch, both of Raleigh, and Molly Patterson Fausch of Columbus, Ohio; and a sister, Anne Facer of Homosassa.

Burial will be in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Robert W. Hooker was a Times reporter and editor for 40 years.