Eugene Patterson remembers Bill Emerson
A native of Adel, Georgia, Eugene Patterson succeeded Ralph McGill as editor of The Atlanta Constitution in 1960. Later, he served as managing editor of the Washington Post and editor of the St. Petersburg Times.
Saturday, he joined in a celebration of the life of his long-time friend and fellow legend of journalism, Bill Emerson, at the First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. The prepared text of Gene Patterson’s ringing and poetic eulogy for Mr. Emerson, who died last Tuesday, follows:
Bill Emerson Remembered
By Eugene Patterson
Saturday, August 29, 2009
First Presbyterian Church
Journalism has lost a tower and every man has lost a friend now that Bill Emerson has moved on to the place where the old tigers go. Wherever that place may be, it’s bound to be brightened as Bill’s uproarious updraft of ebullience balloons him surely heavenward.
Bill rode in here on his runaway rhetoric with Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation, coming out of the Great Depression and the Second World War. He seized the press’ golden moment when it ticked around in the second half of the twentieth century. The reporting of the South’s civil rights revolution that he did for Newsweek, in harness with his devoted deputy and poet laureate, Joe Cumming, finally gave the South as well as the nation a clear look at the cruelties of racial segregation. That helped immeasurably to re-set America on course to right those wrongs. It also revealed a secret that Bill couldn’t camouflage: Behind the antic noise he made lay tempered journalistic steel that didn’t bend.
After Newsweek brought him to New York to edit the back of the book, the Saturday Evening Post hired him away to be its editor-in-chief. He took over that great general interest magazine just as national advertisers were abandoning general interest magazines and rushing to place niche ads in specialized publications, much as newspapers are now losing revenue to the internet. Like Colliers and Life and Look, the icon Saturday Evening Post hit the economic iceberg. As the ship sank beneath him, Captain Emerson manned the deck irrepressible to the final glug.
A New York Times columnist asked him to comment on the state of the magazine’s shrinking solvency during its final days, and Emerson’s no-comment was muscular: “The wisdom of the ages cries out for silence at this moment,” he stated.
The Times columnist wrote drily, “Mr. Emerson grew up in Georgia and went to Harvard, which may explain the way he talks.”
Oh, how he talked. His unbridled imagination and cockamamie wit painted the drabbest vistas in full color. His inventiveness extended the runway of the English language. He found “redneck” to be an inexact appellation for the South’s field hands to whom he felt affectionately kin. Noting their Scots-Irish fairness gave them unlikely hides for sun tanning, he re-defined them more accurately as “frecklebellies.”
Yankee reporters parachuting in to cover civil rights stories often felt nervous about venturing into the South’s backwoods and they crowded in to seek advice from Emerson, whose vivid vernacular they knew captured every stump-knocking, hog-calling, coon-treeing nuance of the region. Bill assured them they could move in complete safety among the frecklebellies if they would but exercise one simple precaution. Leave your suits and ties in your rental car and hide the car behind some gallberry bushes outside of town, he counseled. Put on a pair of overalls with one gallus, a wool hat and no shirt. Bring along a hound dog and walk barefooted with him down the middle of the street as you come into town. Kick the old dog about every third step and holler, “Git on there!”
They’ll never guess you’re a reporter, he’d say. Unless you say something.
Bill the Southerner changed within himself and helped change the white South he loved, from its old bog of meanness that mired it down for so long, to its new upward slope toward a better day. Doug Cumming, Joe’s soon, has quoted Bill’s eloquent defense of his kinsmen. “Southerners are generous, fun-loving people,” he said. “Homicidal, but basically decent folk.”
And he came to know and marvel at the worth and courage of the incredibly brave black legions that marched with Dr. Martin Luther King to overcome. By telling the race story of the 1950s and 60s to the nation as it happened, often risking his own safety to report it, Emerson helped a new South to better itself. But he painstakingly guarded against taking himself too seriously. He conducted a Shakespearean search beyond tragedy to find the comedy in life, and he developed an appreciative ear for the ridiculous.
He noted John Popham’s retreat from sobriety when that New York Times reporter fell off the wagon the day they buried Ralph McGill. Pop had drunk only coffee for nearly two decades but in mourning he was suddenly swigging again. Soon thereafter Bill raised a toast to him at a bourbon-soaked dinner in Chattanooga celebrating Pop’s retirement. “Pop, you sly old tiger,” Bill roared, “now we see why you stayed sober all that time.
“You were saving your liver for your golden years!”
He was delighted when Newsweek Editor Osborn Elliott, nicknamed Oz, entered the elevator in which Emerson was escorting into the New York office a new hire from the St. Petersburg Times, a Florida frecklebellied reporter named Frank Trippett. Newsweek’s patrician editor extended his hand to the new man from the South and introduced himself, saying “Oz Elliott.”
“Ah’s Trippett,” Frank replied.
Oz Elliott, by the way, wrote in his memoir a fair sketch of Bill Emerson — “a great, rangy, bodacious man who flapped his arms when he walked and enchanted when he talked.”
Bill did that. Some of the images he summoned arrived utterly unhinged. After the Saturday Evening Post folded he undertook to publish some childhood learning books. Exactly what are you trying to do? I asked him. “I’m trying to teach the unborn child to play the piccolo,” he explained.
He wrote me a note one winter from high in the snowbound Rocky Mountains where he’d gone to write a book about an astronaut living up there. It is so cold, Bill wrote, “that if you stick your toe out the cabin door a coyote’ll suck it.”
Worse, he wrote, his subject’s family had found God and poured all his bourbon down the sink.
Bill took an endowed professorship at the University of South Carolina – “the only respectable job I ever had,” he called it, though he found teaching to be “like trying to start a reluctant lawn mower.”
Through generous sequences of ups and downs, mine and his, Bill grew steadily in my estimate as a dear and treasured friend. His youngest son John had referred to me in childhood as Mr. Pattamus, so naturally Patterson became forever Pattamus to father as well as son. We fished together, traveled together, bloviated together, huddled together in the lightning flash and thunderclap of a mountain storm that crashed over his blacked-out cottage in the Georgia Blue Ridge, marveled together after supper another time in that cottage as Ferrol Sams and Joe Cumming recited vast passages by heart from Chesterton’s Lepanto –
“Long gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war…”
One never knew what tendrils of erudition might peep through the persiflage at Bill and Lucy’s supper table.
Bill was with me when I lost my Sue eleven years ago. I was with him when he lost his Lucy later. Dear Lucy was very much his corrective agent despite her anxious expression of expectancy waiting to see what he might say or do next. Their beloved children rallied around him but I sensed his loss of Lucy raised a ledge of somberness he couldn’t quite get over. What a wonderful half century they had. Now he’s rejoined her.
Such a force as Bill Emerson does not fade away. He took his notes by the tablet full in handwriting as huge as his heart. He hammered them into the history of a storied Southern time. He lifted spirits in days of distress. He embraced adversity as a teachable moment. He had fun, and spread it. He celebrated life as a bowlful of cherries because he concluded with Faulkner that man will prevail.
What a fine furrow he plowed on his way through our field.
He threw open windows in musty parlors and blew in great gusts of good cheer.
His glittering eye fell unerringly on the fearfully unspoken, and his unshushable tongue gave it voice.
He embraced absurdity and danced it around the floor.
He loosened corsets of the straitlaced, goosed the prim, and hugged the wallflowers.
He raised up the downcast, roused the timid and startled the satisfied.
This big guy, this archenemy of understatement, this old tiger kept a tear of sentiment close beneath the clown’s paint and held a strong hand ready to steady the lame or bind the hurt. A quester who lived dangerously, a merrymaker who laughed freely, an achiever who strove stoutly, Bill Emerson lived large. Looking back now, we can identify the engine that drove his headlong life. It’s called love, hitting on all cylinders. For some reason of his own, whether we deserved it or didn’t, the guy loved us all.
Well, old tiger, that’s mutual.