Eugene "Gene" Patterson, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for his commentary on race relations and civil rights, died Jan. 12 at age 89. Patterson attended then-North Georgia College from 1940-42 and went on to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II.
Patterson wrote for his high school newspaper and for North Georgia's The Cadet Bugler, beginning a 41-year career that took him around the world and earned him journalism's top prize — the Pulitzer — and the respect of generations of journalists. Patterson noted in a 2010 interview for The North Georgia Leader magazine that leadership was instilled in him in Dahlonega.
"I learned as a kid on the drill fields and in the editor's office at that little mountain school the requirement of leadership in both fields; that to command the respect of others you have to earn it," he said.
After earning his bachelor's degree in journalism at the University of Georgia in 1943, Patterson joined the Army as a second lieutenant and was sent to Europe to command a tank platoon under GEN George Patton.
Patterson left the military in 1947 to pursue a journalism career, working at various newspapers and with the United Press news service. He began working at the Atlanta Constitution under Ralph McGill in 1956 and moved up to editor when McGill became publisher in 1960. As editor, Patterson's daily editorials and columns began focusing on the civil rights movement.
His famous editorial in the aftermath of the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that left four young African-American children dead was piercing. He was asked by Walter Cronkite to read "A Flower for the Graves" to the nation on the CBS Evening News:
"A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham," Patterson began his column. "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."
Patterson remained with the Constitution until 1968 when he became managing editor of The Washington Post and became embroiled in the fight over release of the Pentagon Papers. In 1972, Patterson became editor, chairman and CEO of the St. Petersburg Times, which won two Pulitzers under his leadership, and helped start the Poynter Institute, a non-profit that promotes journalism and excellence in writing. He retired in 1988 at age 65 and spent his remaining years in St. Petersburg.
Patterson received honorary degrees from more than a dozen universities, including North Georgia, Emory, Duke and Harvard. A collection of his columns was edited into a book: The Changing South of Gene Patterson: Journalism and Civil Rights, 1960-1968.
Patterson will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.