Good-bye, Mary Jo Patterson: New Jersey loses a great journalist–and I lose a friend.

Good-bye, Mary Jo.

Good-bye, old friend.
Good-bye, old friend. (Star-Ledger photo)

It was a crazy idea, I knew, and so did she–but it was the sort of crazy idea that drove young people like us to a profession like no other. Mary Jo Patterson and I, then both 31 and reporters at The Star-Ledger, would pose as young lovers in the New York neighborhoods haunted by the so-called “Son of Sam” killer. Be bait for the homicidal maniac and, in the process, snare a story like no other.

Sadly, or happily, maybe both, it never came to pass. Although we had done a lot of groundwork–tracing the neighborhoods where he had struck, getting ideas of the sort of circumstances that would draw “Son of Sam” into prowling for couples making out in cars–David Berkowitz was arrested before we took our first  trip to New York.

She and I worked together on other stories for The Star-Ledger–the Seton Hall fire, 9/11, the McGreevey resignation–but nothing quite so fanciful and original to us as that planned but fruitless caper. We were older.

And, now, Mary Jo Patterson, a woman whose desk was next to mine for years, is gone. The official obituary in The Star-Ledger has the requisite number of editors and managers saying just the right things about her–oh, if they only knew what she would say about them. Mary Jo–sorry, she always was that to me and I can’t just call her “Patterson”–had the sharpest, most biting wit of anyone I knew in the business. I always felt knowing her must have been like knowing Dorothy Parker.

She could deflate the most persistent gas bag, inside and outside of the city room. I remember a certain very talented writer–he shall go nameless–who had a desk in our office neighborhood and would spend hours poking fun at editors and their follies. He ranted about how bad things were and how they would never improve.  One day, he became an editor himself–a goal he had secretly harbored for years–and as he packed up the contents of his humble reporter’s desk for his editor’s digs, Mary Jo watched in silence, only the trace of a smirk on her lips.

“I know,” he said–and Mary Jo said nothing for a moment. Then she said flatly, “”I know you’ll improve things here.”

I knew how good a journalist she was. I knew how hard she worked.  Against the pressure of deadline, she turned to steel. Although I would write my own columns, I, like other reporters, would “feed copy” to her about big stories, read her my notes, give her facts I thought helpful to her “main bar” story. She instinctively knew what deserved to be in a story like the 9/11 attacks or the Seton Hall fire and what could be trashed. Mary Jo could take a deluge of copy and force it into a readable stream called a story. She knew what she owed–not to editors, not even to readers, really–but to her own sense of who was she was, her own self-definition of a professional.

When she remarked on someone else’s shoddy work, either in our newspaper or another, Mary Jo would wonder how those reporters or writers could do something like that to themselves. “It’s got his name on it, doesn’t it?” she would ask.

Mary Jo Patterson deserves whatever praise will be offered about her as a journalist now that she is dead. She deserved a lot more when she was alive.

But she was a friend. A neighbor, both in the office and later, after we both left The Star-Ledger.  We talked about personal things. Her father’s illness and death–and her mother’s. I was friendly, too, to David Wald, the newspaper’s political writer, who would  become her husband.

I laugh now, still, when I recall how David walked past our desks one day, not long after he came to work at The Star-Ledger. David and Mary Jo hardly knew each other then.

“What do you think of him?” she asked.

“Does great stuff, I guess,” I said.

“No, no,” she chided. She wasn’t talking about his writing. “I’m going to marry him.”

He didn’t know it, then, but she did. They had two kids, Molly and Ben. My wife and I had two kids. For years, we traded stories about raising children, about watching them grow up and go away. We talked about the almost unbearable tensions that drove so many good journalists away from dying newspapers–and how and why we both left a newspaper, a career, we loved.

She was a loyal friend.  Names like Dick Strong and Mark Finston mean nothing to those running The Star-Ledger now but they were journalists who helped build the newspaper from a weak competitor to The Evening News of Newark to the biggest and best newspaper in the state, once one of the best in the nation. When she felt her friends had been misused, she spoke up–loud and unafraid.

Mary Jo Patterson and I spoke of things far more important than what you can read in a newspaper.

We were friends.







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