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Post Circulation Director Jack F. Patterson, 93

Jack F. Patterson weathered the pressmen's strike and mentored top administrators.
Jack F. Patterson weathered the pressmen's strike and mentored top administrators. (The Washington Post)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008

Jack F. Patterson, a hard-nosed newspaper executive who guided The Washington Post to unprecedented circulation growth from the 1950s to the 1980s and who mentored generations of the paper's top administrators, died April 9 of melanoma at his home in Bethesda. He was 93.

Mr. Patterson, a pioneer of home delivery on the West Coast, joined The Post as assistant circulation director in 1952 when it was one of four daily papers in the capital and had a circulation of about 200,000. He improved the paper's delivery through a tightly managed system of independent distributors that he supervised down to the last detail.

Mr. Patterson became The Post's circulation director in 1956 and later held the titles of vice president and assistant president.

"Jack was one of the great circulation executives in the history of the newspaper business," Post Chairman Donald E. Graham said. "Katharine Graham would have said that no business executive was more important in building The Washington Post during the time she worked there. He knew every inch of the circulation operations and assembled a circulation team which just couldn't be beat."

Throughout his tenure at The Post, Mr. Patterson sternly resisted efforts to unionize his network of nighttime distributors and carriers. He engendered deep loyalty among his workers, but he was also a frequent target of union activists, sometimes at great personal risk.

"Those soldiers out there in the night loved him," said his son, James J. Patterson. "He was a tough taskmaster, though. His motto was, 'Do what you say you're going to do when you say you're going to do it.' "

During the pressmen's strike of 1975 and 1976, Mr. Patterson urged then-Post Chairman Katharine Graham to continue publishing the paper, insisting that he would find a way to get the paper to its readers, despite threats of violence and sabotage.

In her autobiography, "Personal History," Mrs. Graham said Mr. Patterson was "in charge of the very complex problem of delivering the papers . . . to the waiting trucks of the distributors, in the face of all kinds of violence against the drivers, including being shot at."

At the height of the strike, when the paper's presses were shut down, Mr. Patterson helped arrange for helicopters to land on the roof of The Post's building to pick up the printers' plates that were flown to other newspapers for printing. When the printed papers were shipped back to Washington, Mr. Patterson entrusted them to his army of drivers, who left the loading dock under police escort.

Mr. Patterson stayed at the paper for days throughout the four-month strike, sleeping on a couch in his office. Once, behind the office, he was attacked and left with a bloody gash above his eye.

"He was beaten really bad," said his son. "They hauled him down to the alley and took a knife to his forehead.

"He loved The Washington Post with all his heart and soul," his son added. "He would have died for the paper."


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