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Hugh Baskin Patterson Jr. was publisher of the Arkansas Gazette for thirty-eight years and is considered the unsung hero of the triumvirate that led the newspaper through the 1957 desegregation crisis at Central High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County). Its coverage of the crisis won two Pulitzer Prizes.
Hugh Patterson was born in Cotton Plant, Mississippi, on February 8, 1915, the youngest of three children of Hugh B. Patterson Sr. and Martha Rebecca Wilson. His father was a merchant with experience in general stores in Cotton Plant and other places in Mississippi as well as Monticello (Drew County). The family moved to Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) in 1917. As a young man, Patterson worked for a commercial printing business in Pine Bluff and attended Henderson State Teachers College (now Henderson State University), but his education was cut short as the Depression settled in. Patterson traveled across Arkansas and Louisiana selling printing supplies for the Smith Co. of Pine Bluff in 1933. He moved to Little Rock three years later and went to work for Democrat Printing and Lithograph Co. (DP&L). He spent a few years in sales in New York City and Washington DC before leaving DP&L in the summer of 1942 to join the U.S. Army as a volunteer officer candidate.
During World War II, he served in the Army Air Forces, mostly in Mobile, Alabama, where he specialized in supply and maintenance management. On March 29, 1944, he married Louise Heiskell, the younger daughter of Gazette editor and principal owner John Netherland (J. N.) Heiskell. Hugh and Louise Patterson had two sons, Carrick Heiskell Patterson and Ralph Baskin Patterson; they divorced in 1988.
Patterson, who left the army with the rank of major, joined the Gazette in 1946 as national advertising manager. He was later groomed to be publisher (his wife’s brother having been killed in World War II), taking that title in 1948. In that role, he made several improvements to the paper, such as modernizing its equipment and financial structure, creating an accounting system that other newspapers followed, and consolidating ownership under the Heiskell family. To do that, he successfully fought off an attempt by stockholder Witt Stephens to obtain a controlling interest. Under Patterson’s leadership, the Gazette was organized into more sections and added stock tables, more news services, color comics, and Parade magazine.
Patterson was regional chairman of the National Council of Public Schools when he was interviewed about implementing the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which found that segregated schools were inherently unequal. “Well, of course, it’s got to be recognized that the Supreme Court decision was the only decision that could have been made,” he recalled telling the reporter. “We have to recognize that this is a transitional time in terms of public policy and it will, perhaps, take some time for that to be realized, but there’s just no option to this. It’s a fundamental matter.”
He was thus quoted in a wire service story that appeared in the Gazette. Executive Editor Harry Ashmore wondered, perhaps jokingly, whether Patterson would be fired by his father-in-law. J. N. Heiskell’s father had served as a colonel in the Nineteenth Tennessee Infantry during the Civil War; his uncle had been a member of the Confederate Congress.
The Gazette’s decision to oppose Governor Orval Faubus and support desegregation was made largely by Patterson and Ashmore. Heiskell believed in law and order and abhorred mob violence and the tactics of the segregationists, but he was reluctant to go against the South’s tradition of racial segregation, though Patterson and his wife helped him overcome that reluctance.
The editorial voice of the Gazette urged reason and calm, and, despite huge losses in circulation and advertising, this helped the paper win two Pulitzer Prizes in 1958, the first time one newspaper had won two Pulitzers for coverage of the same event. Under Patterson, the Gazette not only recovered its losses but also went on to a more dominant position in circulation and advertising. Bright young journalists from across the country came to work for the newspaper before many went on to other prestigious publications such as the New York Times.
After the Hussman family bought the Arkansas Democrat in 1974, Patterson presided over a bitter newspaper war with the smaller publication. In the early 1980s, the Gazette was losing circulation to the Democrat, and Patterson met with potential buyers for the paper. When that failed to happen, the Gazette filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Democrat of predatory practices. A jury ruled in favor of the Democrat in March 1986, and the Patterson family then sold the Gazette to the Gannett Corporation in October. Patterson left his post as publisher at that time. He was subsequently critical of many of the changes Gannett made to the newspaper, which ceased to be on October 18, 1991, when the company sold out to Hussman.
In 1987, Patterson received the Arkansas Council of the National Conference of Christians and Jews Humanitarian Award. Also that year, he was named Arkansas Journalist of the Year by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He also served as president of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association.
Patterson died of pneumonia on May 29, 2006. He was survived by his wife, Olivia Owen Nisbet, whom he married in 1991, and his sons.
On June 5, 2006, Senator Mark Pryor paid tribute to Patterson on the floor of the United States Senate, saying, “Arkansas is much the better for his voice in a time of crisis and his many other contributions at the helm of the Gazette for so many years.”
For additional information:Arkansas Gazette Project. David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas. Online at http://libinfo.uark.edu/specialcollections/pryorcenter/projects/arkansasgazette/default.asp (accessed October 14, 2009).
Clark, Kevin, director. The Crisis Mr. Faubus Made: The Role of the Arkansas Gazette in the Central High Crisis. DVD. Documentary film, 2009.
———. The Old Gray Lady: Arkansas’s First Newspaper. DVD. Documentary film, 2006.
Reed, Roy, ed. Looking Back at the Arkansas Gazette: An Oral History. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2009.
Donna Lampkin StephensUniversity of Central Arkansas
Last Updated 4/13/2016
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