Gene Patterson Passing Truly Was Untimely As Crucial Anniversary Year Begins

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eugene Patterson passed away just as we are about to mark the 50th anniversary of events that he witnessed and wrote about as a newspaper editor.

As I’m gathering web sites to recommend to students in a new journalism class that begins tomorrow, I stumbled upon the sad news of the death of Eugene Patterson, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who is one of the big names in civil rights reporting.

A link on MediaGazer to Patterson’s obituary presented an interesting twist of new media aggregation of the work of a journalist who made his mark in an old media age– a time when the newspaper was the medium that could change a world.

Patterson’s writings in The Atlanta Journal Constitution and St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) surely changed some minds.

Saying someone’s death is “untimely” has become a cliche.  Does anyone ever pass away right “on time?”   But, having someone like Eugene Patterson, who had so profound an impact on lives of many in the Deep South through his writings, around to see us through this 50th anniversary year of pivotal events that changed our country would have been especially outstanding.

I had the great fortune of hearing him speak just a few months after joining the journalism faculty here at The University of Alabama in 2003.   Patterson was among the panelists for a “Press and Public Symposium”

racebeatI learned so much sitting there hearing about his work during a the civil rights era.   But,  it became much clearer to me a few years later when he and Hank Klibanoff released their Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Race Beat.   Klibanoff has been to the University several times to talk about the book.  (He autographed my copy)

Missed Opportunity in 2013

The Tuscaloosa News published on its front page an Associated Press story Sunday on the significance of 2013, the 50th anniversary of so many watershed events in our nation’s history — including the March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his ‘I Have a Dream Speech,’ the bombing of a Birmingham church that claimed the lives of four little girls and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Gene Patterson’s most famous column, ‘A Flower for the Graves’ was written following the September 1963 church bombing.    It was read that evening by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News.

Here on our campus, 1963 was the year that first black students were enrolled.
It was my hope that Patterson might have been well enough to return to campus 10 years after the Press and Public Symposium to reflect and look ahead to the next 50 years for our campus.  Sadly, that won’t happen.

I never got a chance to talk one-on-one with Eugene Patterson.    Fortunately, even in his last days of life,  he took the time to remind us what journalism is all about.   He also had some keen insight of how we should position ourselves as technologies shift as the need for our profession continues.

Patterson’s Final Words On Journalism

The Poynter Institute has published his final essay on journalism— written on an old-fashioned typewriter just two months ago in November 2012.

“Journalists get to originate, validate and illuminate the real news if they carry forward the character of their calling,” Patterson wrote in the days following Thanksgiving.  ” How they make the good stuff pay will follow the quality as it always has. ”

According to Patterson, technology’s shift of news to new money models still leaves the key to the vault lying in the gold cache of character. That character leaves journalists to prospect for truth.

Patterson’s final essay is where I will begin my class tomorrow– What better words of wisdom to launch a semester-long experience with a new generation of journalists.