Jun 30, 2010
Eugene Patterson Timeline Public Post

Nelson Poynter (left) and Eugene Patterson (right) in the St. Petersburg Times newsroom in 1974.

After Nelson Poynter’s death on June 15, 1978, Eugene Patterson became chief executive officer of the Times Publishing Company and chairman of the Modern Media Institute.


Eugene Patterson was born on a farm near Adel, Georgia on October 15, 1923.

He received his A.B. degree in journalism from the University of Georgia in 1943.

During World War II Patterson served as a tank platoon leader with General George Patton’s Third Army.

After leaving the army, he became a reporter for the Temple (Texas) Daily Telegram and the Macon (Georgia) Telegraph.

Patterson joined the United Press news service in 1948, working first in Atlanta and later serving as a manager in New York City and a bureau chief in London, England.

In 1956 he became the executive editor of the Atlanta Constitution and succeeded Ralph McGill as editor in 1960.

As a liberal editor in the conservative South, he used his daily columns to champion civil rights in the region. His most famous column, “A Flower for the Graves,” dealt with the September 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

Patterson earned the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

He also served as vice chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission from 1964-1968.

In 1968 Patterson joined The Washington Post and served three years as its managing editor.

After leaving the Post he spent a year teaching at Duke University.

He assumed the editorship of the St. Petersburg Times in 1972.

After Poynter’s death on June 15, 1978, Patterson became chief executive officer of the Times Publishing Company and chairman of the Poynter Institute.

He retired from the Times and the Poynter Institute in 1988.

Mr. Patterson holds honorary degrees from more than 12 institutions including Harvard, Duke, Indiana, and Emory. He served as the president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors for 1977-78. In 1980 Patterson was awarded the William Allen White National Award for journalistic merit and in 1994 he won the Elijah Parish Lovejoy journalism award.

He served as a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University for 11 years. An endowed professorship in journalism and communications has been established at Duke University in his honor.

In 2002 the Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark and USF historian Ray Arsenault edited a collection of Patterson’s Atlanta Constitution columns for a book called, “The Changing South of Gene Patterson: Journalism and Civil Rights, 1960-1968.”

Mr. Patterson’s 2008 book, “Patton’s Unsung Armor of the Ardennes: The Tenth Armored Division’s Secret Dash to Bastogne,” is largely based on his experiences during World War II.

In 2010 his name was added to the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta.

He published the book, “Chord: The Old Testament Condensed,” in 2012.

Eugene Patterson died on January 12, 2013 at the age of 89.

He wrote the following column at the time of his retirement:

“Saying farewell to a long and rewarding career in journalism.”
St. Petersburg Times, October 30, 1988.

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 came 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 ones 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 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 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 Ehrlichman, 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 labeling 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 can 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.

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