Scott Patton, Washington Post editor with sardonic wit, dies at 57

July 18, 2012

Scott Patton, a veteran Washington Post editor and sardonic wit who was known for nurturing young writers and his taste for afternoon golf, died of pancreatic cancer July 18 at Capital Caring Hospice in Arlington. He was 57.

The death was confirmed by his wife, Kate Moore Patton.

Beyond a handful of Virginia Press Association awards, Mr. Patton once wrote that his achievements included the 1947 Nobel Prize in physics, winning the 1952 Masters golf tournament and resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis — “the first one, in ’56.” Two were grossly untrue; he was not even born until 1955.

Dubious accomplishments on the world stage aside, Mr. Patton retired from The Post in 2009 after 25 years at the newspaper. After several years as a copy editor in the Style and Business sections, he was tapped in 1996 to lead the new Prince William Extra, a community news publication that set the template for later suburban “Extras” launched by The Post.

As editor, Mr. Patton treated the Extra as a small community newspaper. He stuffed it with news about high school sports, county politics, the crime report, home prices and listings of school lunch menus.

The section had an unquenchable thirst for stories, and Mr. Patton seldom turned down contributions from reporters outside the county, telling them as long as their stories featured a guy named William and a dog named Prince, he could use it.

Over the years, Mr. Patton was involved in more ambitious stories that held public officials accountable. He said he was proudest of launching a series of articles looking into the popular Prince William County sheriff, E. Lee Stoffregen III, who had amassed campaign funds of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“In small-town politics, you maybe have a war chest of $25,000,” Mr. Patton said in an interview for this story. Furthermore, Stoffregen had started expanding his policing powers to include radar patrols and sobriety checks instead of focusing solely on his duties such as securing the courthouse, transporting prisoners, serving writs and collecting back taxes.

Mr. Patton launched dozens of articles that played a role in Stoffregen losing his job to a political newcomer in 2003. Stoffregen was later indicted on grand larceny and embezzlement charges but avoided felony charges by pleading no contest to two misdemeanor charges, returning a semiautomatic weapon meant for county use and repaying the county $16,500.

“Scott was dedicated to his reporters, getting excited about anything that excited them, from the annual county fair to the politics of growth to crime,” said Metro investigative reporter Josh White, who formerly worked under Mr. Patton. “He was a front-end editor, intensely interested in working with me from the start of a story idea so we were both happy when we got to the end. Despite all appearances to the contrary, he was a very serious journalist.”

While working in Manassas, his staff knew that his midafternoon proclamation, “I’m heading to the bank!” was a euphemism for golf practice. He sometimes showed up to work in golf shorts, the next day arriving in a pressed suit and cufflinks.

“About two months into my summer internship, Scott urged me to join him at a charity golf tournament The Post was sponsoring,” White said. “I thought this was the greatest thing, getting to play golf with the boss during the workday. When Virginia Editor Richard Paxson called me on the second tee with a story assignment, asking me where I was, I was certain I’d be fired on the spot. Scott stood up for me, but Paxson made it clear that I was not to take such advice from Scott again.”

Scott Douglas Patton was born in Arlington on July 15, 1955. He was a 1973 graduate of Yorktown High School in Arlington and a 1977 English graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University.

Before joining The Post, he was a reporter at the Winchester Star in northwestern Virginia and a public information officer for the Project Hope health-care volunteer organization in Millwood, Va.

He said he was initially drawn to journalism because his formative years overlapped with the Watergate scandal and how it showed newspapers could “have an effect on the public good.” After he joined The Post, he said he began to relish community journalism over the “nebulous impact of covering the State Department.”

Working from the Manassas bureau, he said, “members of the community could come into my office and yell at me, and I could yell right back.”

His marriage to Mary Kibler ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 13 years, Kate Moore Patton, and two children from his second marriage, Erin Patton and David Patton, all of Arlington; and two brothers, David A. Patton of Arlington and Bruce A. Patton of Chelsea, Mich.

Scott Patton helped promote the careers of many young staff writers who have become rising players in their respective departments, from the politics desk to the Weekend section.

“Scott was the best kind of editor for a young reporter: smart, supportive, engaged and funny as hell,” said national political editor Steven Ginsberg, who covered Prince William County politics under Mr. Patton. “Scott made work fun, he dedicated himself to the local community and he had great instincts for local stories. His ideas resonated as strongly as the way he praised himself for having them: ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Scott would boom across the newsroom, ‘the genius switch does not have an off position.’ ”

Mr. Patton briefly edited the Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria extras before retiring. He occasionally worked as the Saturday Metro editor, which put him in contact with writers perhaps unaccustomed to his style.

Once, when a young female reporter needed to wrap up a story, Mr. Patton offered a firm but not unkind word of encouragement worthy of the dramatic journalism warhorse “The Front Page”: “Shake off your hangover, sweetheart, and start writing.”