I didn’t know him, but I wish I did. I only saw him once, laughing with friends in a downtown Atlanta restaurant. “That’s Gene Patterson,” my buddy said. “He used to be with the paper here. Now he’s in Florida.” He looked to me like a pretty good fellow.
I had heard the name, but that’s about all I knew about Mr. Patterson. As time went by, I learned more – a lot more – and everything I learned bolstered that first impression. He was indeed a good man, one of the best that came out of the South in the 20th century. Mr. Patterson passed away last month at the age of 89.
He grew up in Adel, down in “way” South Georgia, in territory that is called “below the gnat line,” which you can only fully understand if you’ve been there. The gnat line runs through the middle of Georgia, near Macon, and south of there the gnats have a way of getting your attention.
Adel is not pronounced Adele, like a ladies’ name, but A’-del, with a native Southerner’s assurance on the first syllable. Before Adel was called Adel, the name of the town was Puddleville, and that right there ought to tell you something.
According to Gene Patterson, he grew up there behind a pair of mules, plowing a vast flat piece of red dirt. It was “50 acres of isolation,” he said of those Depression days: picking cotton, pulling tobacco and corn, and killing hogs. Gene eventually went off to school, though.
At age 20, he left journalism school, landed at Normandy and became a tank commander with Patton’s 3rd Army, right on through the Battle of the Bulge and across the Rhine. He was decorated with a Bronze and Silver Star.
After the Army, he began a career as a reporter, ending up in London as the UPI bureau chief in 1952. After a plane crash in Uganda was thought to have taken the life of Ernest Hemingway, Patterson penned a memorable lead: “Ernest Hemingway came out of the jungle today, carrying a bunch of bananas and a bottle of gin.”
But it was in his years with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution between 1956 and 1968 that showed Gene Patterson to be a man of integrity, wisdom and courage. He, along with his mentor Ralph McGill – and other editors such as Hodding Carter of the Greenville Delta-Democrat, Harry Ashmore of the Arkansas Gazette, Virginius Dabney of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Jonathan Daniels of the Raleigh News and Observer – took editorial positions that challenged the status quo of segregation, white supremacy and Jim Crow, and decried the outrages being committed by racist thugs and mobs during the Civil Rights Movement.
In September 1963, four little girls were killed in a KKK bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Patterson wrote his daily column as he watched the news; Walter Cronkite of CBS Evening News asked Patterson to read it on the air.
He read, in part: “A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her . . . With a weeping Negro mother, we stand in the bitter smoke and hold a shoe. If the South is ever to be what we wish it to be, we will plant a flower of noble resolve for the South now upon these four small graves that we dug.”
He won a Pulitzer Prize for columns like that.
When Gene Patterson left Atlanta he became the managing editor of The Washington Post, where he convinced publisher Katharine Graham to publish the Pentagon Papers. He left there to become the executive editor and then publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, which became one of America’s great newspapers under his guidance.
His advice to young journalists was a challenge: “Don’t just make a living. Make a mark.”
The plowboy from Puddleville kept it real and he kept it simple.