Hugh Patterson, dead at 91 -- UPDATE | Arkansas Blog

Hugh Patterson, dead at 91 -- UPDATE

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Hugh B. Patterson Jr., the former publisher of the Arkansas Gazette and former chairman of the Arkansas Gazette Co., died early today at 91. Following are excerpts from an obituary prepared by the family.


Patterson was born February 8, 1915, at Cotton Plant, Miss., where his father was in business. The family moved to Russellville and then to Pine Bluff, where Patterson attended public school and was the prize-winning drum major of the Pine Bluff High School band.


After high school Patterson held various sales positions in the commercial printing industry before joining the Army Air Corps in 1942. He was commissioned an officer and played a major role in leading the Air Corps training and maintenance depot at Mobile for the duration of the war. He left the Air Corps with the rank of major, having won citations for the excellence of the Mobile facility and its use of civilian employees.


In 1943 he married the former Louise Heiskell, daughter of Arkansas Gazette editor J.N. Heiskell. Heiskell's son, Carrick White Heiskell, who had been destined to continue the Heiskell family's leadership of the Gazette, had been killed in the war and J.N. Heiskell invited Patterson to join the newspaper. After serving as national advertising director and assistant business manager, Patterson was named publisher in 1948.


Patterson worked to modernize the newspaper's business and accounting systems, and developed innovative approaches to newspaper cost accounting that were a model for the industry at the time. He led the Heiskell family's move to buy out non-family partners in the Gazette, placing control in the hands of the families of J.N. Heiskell, his brother, Fred Heiskell, managing editor of the newspaper, and their sister, Elizabeth Heiskell Smith.


Patterson, along with J.N. Heiskell and Executive Editor Harry S. Ashmore, led the Gazette in its Pulitzer Prize-winning defense of the rule of law during the Little Rock integration crisis of 1957. The newspaper's editorial stand was unpopular among many Arkansans, but Patterson managed to keep the newspaper in business despite a falloff in advertising and subscriptions.


The Gazette was to weather successfully a number of other crises during Patterson's leadership, including a bitter dispute with the Newspaper Guild, a damaging libel suit, a serious fire in the Gazette Building and the sale of stock to outside interests by one of the branches of the Heiskell family. Patterson kept the newspaper profitable, but he and the Heiskell family treated the newspaper as a public service, and much of the profit was reinvested in recruiting and retaining excellent personnel in the news and business departments.


As the success of the Gazette grew, the other Little Rock newspaper, the afternoon Arkansas Democrat, was less successful. Democrat owner Walter Hussman proposed a joint operating agreement to Patterson, but he declined, knowing that in other markets afternoon newspapers in joint operating agreements had been a financial burden on the joint operations.


Hussman then decided to compete economically with the Gazette, moving the newspaper to a morning publication cycle, offering free classified advertisements, reduced-price display advertising to large customers, total market free distribution of the newspaper on certain days of the week and other price-driven tactics. Patterson and the Gazette believed these tactics included offering the product below cost, a violation of law. The Gazette sued Hussman for his competitive tactics, but lost the lawsuit.


Faced with the prospect of costing the Gazette's more than 300 employees their livelihood and in light of his fiduciary responsibility to the various Heiskell family heirs if the newspaper went out of business, Patterson reluctantly decided the newspaper should be sold to an organization with more financial strength. Ultimately the newspaper was sold in 1986 to the Gannett Corporation and Patterson retired. The Gannett group removed other family members from the operation and made major changes in content and business practices, but these did not prove successful enough to win the competition with Hussman and the Democrat, and Gannett in 1991 decided to close the Arkansas Gazette — the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi River — and sell its name and assets to Hussman.


Patterson and Louise Heiskell Patterson divorced in 1987 and Louise Patterson died in 1990. Patterson married Olivia (Lid) Nisbet in 1992.


In addition to his wife, Patterson's survivors include his sons Carrick Heiskell Patterson of Little Rock and Ralph Baskin Patterson of Little Rock and Blowing Rock, N.C.; stepson A. Wyckliff Nisbet and stepdaughter Olivia (Livvie) Wyatt,; grandsons John Netherland Heiskell Patterson, Hugh Andrew Patterson and Nicholas Howell Patterson; granddaughters Julia Taylor, Jane Embry Nisbet, Alexis Nisbet, Rebecca  Nisbet, Olivia Wyatt and Mary Wyatt; great-granddaughter Mary Ruth Taylor; nephews Bond Sandoe of Indianapolis and George Whitfield Cook IV of Ashland, N.H., and niece Kay Rodriquez Sider of Seattle.

UPDATE: Funeral will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Christ Episcopal Church. Ruebel Funeral Home will handle the arrangements.

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