PATRICK COBURN March 3, 1941-May 18, 2022

“We were very lucky”

Pat Coburn loved chardonnay, art, travel and Springfield. He hung Christmas decorations early.

Among veterans at the State Journal-Register, where he rose from cops reporter to publisher during a journalism career spanning from 1966 to 2006, he is remembered for microwave popcorn.

Jack Clarke, Coburn’s predecessor in the publisher’s office, had an MBA from Harvard but no journalism background before getting the top job, which he held for nearly 30 years. “He was quirky,” recalls Greg Mellis, a former SJ-R photographer who became Coburn’s friend. “He ruled with an iron first: No one’s going to watch TV in my newsroom.” In addition to banning televisions, Clarke was known for not allowing microwave popcorn in the building. “Everyone knew Jack didn’t like the smell,” Mellis said.

When Coburn rose from managing editor to publisher in 1997, he slipped into the SJ-R cafeteria, put popcorn in the nuker and let fragrance waft. It isn’t clear whether he liked the stuff, but the message was clear: The SJ-R was going to change.

“We were very lucky,” says Sarah Antonacci, former SJ-R reporter hired two years after Coburn became publisher at the only newspaper where he ever worked. “We didn’t know it at the time, to have the kind of newspaper we had at the time and the freedom to tell our stories about our history.”

Newspapers then wielded power. When Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf wanted public money for a new stadium, he pitched the SJ-R’s editorial board. When George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter lunched in Springfield, Coburn was on the guest list.

“He had that big office,” Antonacci says. “When you got invited in there, it was like being invited into royalty – it was such a special place to be. Sitting in on editorial board meetings: They had so much heft. What was great about him was, he gave us all the freedom to work. I never felt pressure to write things in a certain way or report things in a certain way. He had respect for professional journalism, and in return, he had our respect.”

The Copley family, which owned the string of newspapers that included the SJ-R, were Republicans, and Copley newspapers were expected to endorse GOP candidates for president.

“The paper had a reputation of being in the pocket of the Republican Party,” Antonacci recalls. “Pat turned that around. It took a long time. People got the picture: We were going to do fair and balanced reporting.”

Under Coburn, the SJ-R was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2003 for a series on racism and immigration in Beardstown, where Latinos had come to work at a meatpacking plant. A cautious New York Times wasn’t yet printing color photographs in news pages when Coburn took over the SJ-R, but he welcomed the shift from black and white.
“He loved visuals – he embraced that era of technology,” Mellis said. “We always had our own cartoonist – that was a mark that Pat put on the paper.”

Coburn invited the sports department to his home for brunch, recalls former SJ-R sports editor Jim Ruppert. Before heading home each night, Coburn walked through the newsroom, stopping at each desk to say hello, Ruppert says. If there was money in the budget for a graphic artist but lieutenants backed a promising reporter instead, Coburn changed direction. He boasted about the newspaper, Mellis said, not so much about himself.

“He was just very even-keeled,” said Robert Pope, former SJ-R managing editor. “I don’t think I ever saw him get mad more than a handful of times – I don’t think I ever saw him flustered. He was an old-fashioned, classic gentlemen. As publisher, he would walk by and say ‘I’ve got a tip for you.’”

During the 1980s, before being named publisher, Coburn donated $100,000 to Sangamon State University, now called University of Illinois Springfield. The university objected when Coburn asked that the gift be anonymous.

“They said, ‘We object to you doing this anonymously because we believe that if you would put your name to this, it would make others feel inclined to do what you did,’” recalls Mellis, who owns three small newspapers in Wisconsin. “He thought about it and he said, ‘OK.’ He didn’t want credit for it, but he did it.”

Coburn knew his calling when he entered Eastern Illinois University, where he majored in English and journalism while also working in the dining hall. “He wanted to be solidly based in grammar and English so that he could be a writer, a journalist,” says F. Dale Whitten, who became Coburn’s roommate while both were sophomores. “I don’t think publisher was really on his radar. It was how we mature. You realize, ‘I have the skill sets.’”

Coburn early on learned how to handle crisis.

In 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary, then one of the hottest acts in America, was scheduled to play Eastern Illinois University, with Whitten coordinating the show and Coburn in charge of ticket sales. The concert was sold out, lots of money was involved. Then came a call during dinner shortly before curtain time. The band had landed at O’Hare International Airport, but, due to fog, their flight to the Mattoon airport had been canceled. They would rent a car. “Panic swept through Patrick and me and others who were in charge,” Whitten recalls. “Patrick’s big worry was, we didn’t have enough cash on hand to refund money if people stormed the box office.”

Coburn was standing outside the gymnasium when a station wagon bearing Peter, Paul and Mary arrived. By then, Whitten recalls, the crowd was “getting a little out of control.” With Coburn and his roommate in the front row, the show went on, with numerous standing ovations. There was, Whitten remembers, revelry in the dorm that night, where Coburn and his roommate kept a tank of piranhas and charged classmates to watch them eat. The two also launched a campus radio station that played music and broadcast news.

“Pat was not an in-your-face kind of guy,” says Whitten, whose friendship with Coburn endured. “He’d sit around a table, say ‘Let’s discuss it.’” During a float trip down the Grand Canyon, the solution to unpleasant people on a crowded raft was avoiding them, Whitten recalled.

Coburn spent his final years in Chicago, where he succumbed to heart failure, according to Mellis. He didn’t want to overshadow successors by staying in the capital city, Mellis says, but Springfield stayed in his soul. He left the bulk of his estate to the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, with no restrictions on how the money can be used. It is a sizeable amount, said John Stremsterfer, foundation president and chief executive officer.

“Gifts like that come from people who love their community in a deep, broad way,” Stremsterfer said.

Bruce Rushton

Bruce Rushton is a freelance journalist.

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