Updated 5 yearss ago
At a recent luncheon in Orlando, University of Central Florida President John Hitt noted: “The best time to plant an oak tree is 20 years ago.”
Hitt’s thoughtful remark made me think of Gene Patterson, the media leader who passed away in January at age 89. When Florida Trend founder Harris Mullen was ready to retire in 1980, he found a buyer in Gene, who was running Times Publishing Co. Harris didn’t much like the editorial viewpoints of the company’s flagship St. Petersburg Times, but he admired Gene’s grit and polish and the company’s integrity and publishing expertise. Harris wanted a buyer who would tend the garden as he had from the magazine’s creation.
Gene would later endorse the vision: “Florida is the fourth-biggest state in the country, (yet) it’s totally fragmented from an information point of view. . . . Florida Trend is a medium that can cover Florida as a whole.”
He was right. Florida Trend continues to enjoy a wide — and growing — readership among business, govern-mental and civic leaders. Those C-suite eyeballs bring the advertising that supports the venture and allows top-flight writers to seek out stories that matter.
Gene came by his grit and integrity honestly. Born in Valdosta, Ga., he lived on a farm during the Depression. His storied career began in World War II, when he fought with Patton’s army through the Battle of the Bulge all the way to the Alps. He worked at a series of small newspapers before joining the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, rising to become its editor, where he became famous and won the Pulitzer Prize for his editorials supporting integration.
It’s hard to think back 50 years to the racist South with civil rights marches, mass arrests, the oratory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the first notes of the Vietnam War. Yet this was the environment in which Gene wrote.
His most inspirational column appeared on Sept. 16, 1963, titled “A Flower for the Graves.” Gene wrote it right after a bomb killed four little girls in a Birmingham church. Here’s an excerpt:
“A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. 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.
“It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.
“Only we can trace the truth, Southerner — you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.
“We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.
“We — who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.
“We — who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their nigger jokes. . . .
“We — the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and demand its recognition — 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.”
Those were powerful words from a powerful giant, a leader who challenged each of us to stand up for right, to be better today than yesterday, to lead us to embrace all citizens, to plant oak trees today that will flower in 20 years.
When purchasing the magazine, Gene pledged to build on Florida Trend’s fine reputation, writing: “This state deserves the finest of business magazines. . . . We are committed to in-depth reporting of the business story. . . . We see the brightness of Florida’s business and financial future.”
We remember those words. We are up to the challenge.