Gene Patterson to Jack Nelson: Save Us a Desk Up There in That Celestial Newsroom

Gene Patterson gives a tribute about a newspaper reporter, Jack Nelson, who died several months ago. Jack's focus was not on credit unions. Rather he was a member of what many refer to as the "fourth estate." That is the group which, at its best, holds us accountable for upholding the values we all profess to follow.


This eulogy was delivered by Gene Patterson on Nov. 14, 2009 at a memorial service for Jack Nelson, and is reprinted with permission from Barbara Matusow Nelson. Gene was Jack's editor when Jack was a reporter at the Atlanta Constitution.

Jack Nelson, the long-time Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times, died this fall. Jack's focus was not on credit unions.  Rather he was a member of what many refer to as the "fourth estate."  That is the group which, at its best,  holds us accountable for upholding the values we all profess to follow.

His work won him a Pulitzer prize.  He was a leader in his profession.  But most importantly he exemplified an integrity of purpose that is the ultimate measure of any effort. 

That is why I believe this tribute is relevant for us.  Credit unions were founded for a single purpose—serving our members.  But sometimes in the ebb and flow of financial woes, member hardships, declining trends and regulatory demands, that purpose gets cloudy.   Even lost. 

The line that best captures our hope for 2010 from the article is:  “Jack wasn't complicated.  He was a good guy who lived long enough to become a great man." 

Credit unions have been the good guys throughout this crisis—the next stage is more demanding, but also more lasting. Happy New Year. Chip.

Jack Nelson came into the news business with a high school diploma and a low boiling point. He left with the rarest trophy we award -- the respect of his peers.

Unbounded respect.

You didn't mess with Jack. He had the face of a choirboy but the knuckles of a cop. As an adolescent, he took that do-right jaw into the boxing ring as a Golden Gloves fighter. As a man, he sank the hard fist of truth into the paunches of racist politicians who misbegot their power by inflaming the ignorant. Jack was a leader of the post-Appomattox generation that grew up.

He was born in Alabama and raised in Mississippi and came out of the Army in Georgia to cub on The Atlanta Constitution. When I joined that paper as executive editor in 1956 I saw reporters going by the city desk for story assignment but stopping by Jack's desk for newsroom leadership. He expected to be in charge. Even in his twenties he was the ace investigator, the star reporter and the staff pathfinder.

He had a Cracker's easy tolerance for good whiskey and bad jokes, hot gospel music and hot fried fish. But his broad mind slammed shut when he encountered crookedness and lies among officeholders abusing the public's trust.

He didn't like sheriffs protecting illegal gambling in Savannah or J. Edgar Hoover paying FBI plants to witness murders in Alabama and Mississippi. How many people besides Jack Nelson can you remember who dared to expose Hoover's excesses at the height of his power when he was misusing FBI agents to try to ruin citizens like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

No official wrongdoer got too big for Jack to take on. He didn't hesitate to put the branding iron to sacred cows in any herd.

Even as a youngster he was a heat-seeking missile pointing his pencil as the warhead. He exposed speed traps fleecing tourists on U.S. 1 and marriage mills profiteering at the Florida line -- thievery in the state house and bribery on the police beat.

Jack found doctors turning up drunk and letting nurses perform hip-nailing surgery on patients in the Georgia state mental hospital at Milledgeville. His ruthless reporting of that and other horrors forced the governor and legislature to clean up that snake pit. His stories won him the Pulitzer Prize. He was 29 years old.

Jack was never the same after we sent him to Little Rock in 1957 to cover the desegregation of Central High School. Governor Orval Faubus had pleased his voting public by defying a federal court's order to desegregate the school. Jack's stories showed he was profoundly shaken and moved by the sight of frightened black children shrinking from the screams of hatred spewed by crowds of white mothers, and the sound of popping leather and metal as United States Army paratroopers deployed to force white Southerners to obey the national law.

It was fated that Otis Chandler would hire Jack away from the pinch-penny Constitution when he set out to make the Los Angeles Times a great newspaper. Jack went national bearing what Howell Raines called "a rage for justice that arose from being eyewitness to injustice for so many years."

He covered the civil rights beat across the flaming South of the 1960s before going to D.C. and becoming the storied chief of the Los Angeles Times' high-powered Washington bureau.

Roy Reed of The New York Times liked to travel the South's backwoods in company with Jack even though he was a news competitor. Roy said, "He was the toughest reporter I've ever known. I (knew) that if I ever got in a jam Jack would defend me -- with his fists if necessary."

Jack did move with a certain force. Steve Daley recalled that watching him walk into a story "was like watching Sandy Koufax get off the team bus."

He sensed the truth of things. Eleanor Randolph said, "He was the place you went to check the smell of a story."

Politicians seldom forgot him. Jeff Nesmith recalls a comment Marvin Griffin made to Jack after Griffin had left the Georgia governor's office with a good number of his administration's department heads in jail. As Nesmith remembers it, the old race-baiter said, "Jack? You know what I used to think to myself evuh time I had a press conference and I'd see you comin' through the door with that damn notebook in yore hand? I'd think, I wonder what that beady-eyed sumbitch has got on me this week."

Jack achieved national celebrity breaking national stories as the L.A. Times bureau chief and talking straight on network television as a star of PBS' "Washington Week in Review." He gave voice to things that mattered.

But he remained in his personal life the finest kind of friend anyone could hope to have and keep. If you were his and Barbara's friend, he was steady at your side. If you wanted help, you got it before you could ask. If you had a need, count on him. If you wanted the truth, you'd hear it straight. Jack never swerved. He was tough as nails holding to his principles, but he was not ashamed to show a kindness and a sweetness of nature to friends who earned his trust. Down deep he was, as Margaret Hurst O'Neill says, "a sweetheart."

I like the summing up of another of his Atlanta contemporaries, BJ Phillips. She said, "Jack wasn't complicated. He was a good guy long enough that he became a great man."

Well, so long, Jack -- good friend, great man. Save us a desk up there in that celestial newsroom. We expect the editor-in-chief of us all has got you running that bureau by now.




Dec. 28, 2009


  • Great story! Sometimes we all need to remember that doing the right thing may not be popular, but it's the right thing to do!

    Thanks for sharing this story.
    Jeanine Morse