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  • Tampa Bay Times file

    Gene Patterson was a war hero and a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor.

  • Gregory Favre

Southern editor inspired and left his mark

Published: Sunday, Apr. 7, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 2E

Listen. Can you hear it? Can you hear the haunting sound of taps played by the lonely bugler on a hill in the Arlington National Cemetery?

Those of us standing in reverence and silence not far away could hear the sound as it pierced the chilly breeze on a bright March afternoon. We had come to say our goodbyes, to a friend, to a former colleague and mentor, to a father and grandfather, all of us to a man who left a mark.

He was Gene Patterson, courageous Pulitzer Prize-winning editor, Silver Star and Bronze Star soldier in World War II, a man of kindness and of steel-wool integrity. And here in his final resting place he was joining the 400,000 other men and women buried in these hallowed acres of white crosses. He was 89.

As editor of the Atlanta Constitution on Sept. 16, 1963, he wrote a column following the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four African American children, a column that will long be remembered by those of us who read it that morning or heard it that night as it was read aloud on the "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite." It was titled "A Flower for the Grave."

"A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist church in Birmingham," he began. "In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.

"Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand. … We – who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate … we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die."

That was just one of so many moments of courage in his career as a Southern editor in the days when the civil rights battles were raging across the land. For those of us who were young then and who practiced this craft of journalism, we couldn't find a better role model.

Today, we live and work in a world of daily technological miracles in which everyone has the capabilities, if not the abilities, to disseminate "news." But we also still live and work in a world that is filled with doubts and uncertainties and upheaval, a world in which the echoes of violence sound loudly in our daily lives, in which hatred and prejudice still find a harbor in too many hearts. It is the job of journalists on all platforms, Gene would remind us, to help renew the spirit of faith and trust among all people. To help create a place where hope and dreams and laughter are always present. To help us remember so that we don't repeat our mistakes of the past.

Elie Wiesel, teacher, philosopher, author, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, perhaps said it best in a piece he wrote for Parade magazine several years ago: "To remember means to recognize a time other than the present; to remember means to acknowledge the possibility of a dialogue. In recalling an event I provoke its rebirth in me. In evoking a face, I place myself in relationship to it. In remembering a landscape, I oppose it to the walls that imprison me. The memory of an ancient joy or defeat is proof that nothing is definitive, nor is it irrevocable. To live through a catastrophe is bad; to forget it is worse."

Gene Patterson never stopped being an editor. Even after the doctors told him he didn't have long to live, he took out his pencil and did something he wanted to do for a long time. He edited 500,000 words out of the Old Testament, King James version, and had it published on Amazon. It's titled "Chord." Subtitled: "Not the whole hymn."

Then not long before he died he wrote his final thoughts on journalism. Among them: "Be truthful; if it hurts, just say ow. Be ethical; if it feels wrong, it is. Be fair; let all speak. Be skeptical; ask what's missing here? Be above conflict; if in doubt, don't. Be easy in the going; clasp the comical, and dance it around the floor."

And he never stopped telling us all that our goal as journalists should be to leave a mark. He certainly did.

Listen. Can you hear the sound …

Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Bee and vice president of news for The McClatchy Co.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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