Donald Patterson Sr., ex-Sun publisher, dies WWII Navy veteran headed newspapers in time of expansion

December 03, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Donald H. Patterson Sr., who coordinated the move of the Baltimore Sun newspapers to Calvert Street in 1950 and oversaw expansion of the printing plant as publisher three decades later, died of cancer yesterday at his Annapolis residence.

Mr. Patterson, 81, was the last in a series of fathers and sons who presided over the newspapers for much of this century -- along with Paul C. Patterson, whose tenure from 1919 to 1951 was the longest, and William F. Schmick Sr. and William F. Schmick Jr.

The younger Patterson rose through the newspaper's management ranks after distinguished naval service in World War II. He was named publisher in 1977 and given the added position of president of the parent A. S. Abell Co. two years later. He retired in 1983.

Privately, Mr. Patterson was known at The Sun as a soft-spoken man with a quiet sense of humor and a reputation as a good listener -- personality traits that prompted one acquaintance to remark: "If you didn't like Donald Patterson, you didn't like apple pie."

He was a man as modest and quiet as his conservatively cut suits and ties. He proposed to a Sun reporter earlier this year that his obituary only run to six words.

"'He came. He saw. He went.' That's all I want," he said.

Mr. Patterson was born in Baltimore in 1916 and raised in Guilford, five years after his father had come to the city as managing editor of The Evening Sun. The elder Patterson, born in Illinois, earlier had held newspaper jobs in Chicago and Washington.

The younger Patterson -- godson of journalist H. L. Mencken -- was a 1936 graduate of Gilman School and earned his bachelor's degree from Princeton University in 1940.

He enrolled at Harvard Law School that year but attended class there just one day before receiving a notice from the Navy to report for officer training.

He was commissioned an ensign in 1941 at Annapolis, a member of the first group of reserve officers to attend the Naval Academy since its founding.

Mr. Patterson was awarded the Bronze Star for service as executive officer aboard the destroyer USS Somers during the invasion of southern France in 1944, cited for inspiring subordinates "by his calm and capable performance of duty while subjected to heavy and accurate cross-fire from enemy shore artillery."

He was given the award in March 1945 at commissioning ceremonies for the high-speed transport USS Myers, which was put under his command.

Any thoughts of returning to Harvard Law School were dismissed after the war. Mr. Patterson was by then married to the former Elizabeth Sommerville Melvin, daughter of Judge and Mrs. Ridgely P. Melvin of Annapolis, and the father of two children.

"I got out of the service in January of 1946," he recalled years later. "By this time I had a wife and two kids and couldn't see how I was going to be able to go to law school. So, I traveled up and down the East Coast looking for a job."

His father invited him to join the newspaper, but he turned down the offer at first. The elder Patterson said the organization needed new blood, explaining that most of the people in the company were over 60.

Although he soon became involved in dealing with architects and contractors in construction of the Calvert Street newspaper plant in the late 1940s, Mr. Patterson liked to say that his first job was attending the 1948 national political conventions in Philadelphia -- his assigned task to "carry H. L. Mencken's typewriter and be his go-fer."

The newspaper plant project -- on the site of the Pennsylvania Railroad's old Calvert Station -- included the installation of new presses and the move from the Sun Square building at Baltimore and Charles streets.

The move was made on Christmas Day 1950 without any disruption to publication.

He oversaw the $51 million expansion of the Calvert Street plant that began in 1979 and included the installation of high-speed Goss Metroliner color printing presses, which introduced the use of color to the newspapers in 1982.

Said David R. Owen, retired admiralty lawyer and friend of nearly 50 years, "Winston Churchill said of British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, 'He was a modest man with much to be modest about.' Donald Patterson was a modest man who had nothing to be modest about. I don't know of any better way to describe his personality and numerous accomplishments."

Mr. Patterson's successor as publisher, Reg Murphy, now president and chairman of the board of National Geographic, said after Mr. Patterson's retirement in 1982: "He left a flourishing newspaper company with a reputation for impeccable journalistic and public service standards."

After learning of his death yesterday, Mr. Murphy said, "Mr. Patterson was a mentor and a principled publisher. He brought both management skill and thoughtful compassion for his fellow employees to work every day.

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