- Of Lands, Legends and Laughter: The Search for Adventure with National Geographic (1998)
By Chantal Ward (SHS)
Carolyn Bennett Patterson was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, in April 1922. James H. Bennett was her father, and her mother was Nola Landsdale Bennett. Carolyn had one brother, James H. Bennett Jr. When Carolyn was a toddler, she and her family moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and they later spent four years in Yazoo, Mississippi (Patterson 1-2).
Carolyn and her family faced not having enough money to get by, she recalls an event that she shared with her mother. She says, “Walking with my mother to the cemetery , carrying a bunch of flowers from the yard to put on the family graves. We go on Saturday afternoon because we want the graves to look their best when most of the visitors come out on Sunday. “Your grandmother would have loved these mums,” Nola says, pulling weeds from the grass covering her mothers grave “she worked hard in her life she never had the time she would have liked to spend with flowers,” Nola grieved tears falling. “But she did it all for me and my sisters. Our parents sent all three of us to college at a time girls just didn’t get a higher education. I remember her saying, ‘Papa and I want you girls to have a good education so you can make something of yourselves.’ And look, ” says Nola, reproaching herself, “what little we have done with our lives …if it weren’t for you children …” Nola pauses and looks thoughtful at me. “My grandmother ,” she says, waving toward her grandmother’s grave. “did the same for my mother, going without so that she could have things. And, and of course, your father and I are doing our best by you children.” Awash with guilt I give my mother a hug” (Patterson 5).
This event made her make a promise to herself that neither she or her children will never have to go through what her family had to go through. Like Scarlet O’Hara, shaking her fist and crying “As God is my witness, I would never be poor again,” Carolyn set out to do what she had to do make a living for herself. She finished high school and decided to follow her mother’s footsteps. She went to Blue Mountain College (Patterson 5).
Carolyn found, for the first time outside her parents’ home, the encouragement to pursue life as a writer. It came from her English teacher, Mrs. Cox, who also taught her how to spell correctly. After spending a year at Blue Mountain Carolyn left and attended Mississippi State College for her second year, believing, correctly, that she needed a broader experience to prepare her for journalism school at the university of Missouri. At Mississippi State College in Starkville, Mississippi, Carolyn worked on the school newspaper and played in Mississippi State’s famous Maroon Band (Patterson 13).
Before attending Louisiana State University she attended the University of Missouri’s school for journalism for her junior year. At Louisiana State University she found the college of her dreams. She immediately began working for theDaily Reveille. Her teachers in the school of journalism became her friends as did many of the University’s student leaders whose activities she covered as a reporter and editor. Three of her Chi Omega sisters, Wink Dameron, Che Che Winkle and Jewel Claitor became her best friends for life. They continue to have reunions every year (Patterson 15).
Carolyn was finally called up by the Red Cross and assigned the job of recreational assistant at the Army Redistribution Station #2 in Miami Beach, Florida. Carolyn first saw her husband while working for Red Cross. He was without a doubt the most handsome man she had ever seen–something of across between Gregory Peck and Abraham Lincoln. She sailed over to the newcomer and exclaimed to him, ” I’m Carolyn Bennett of the American Red Cross. I do hope we shall be friends!” She was given a long cool look. Then came the reply, “Who the hell cares?” Instantly she was hooked. It took Frederick Gillis “Pat” Patterson just three days to discover that he was in love with her, too (Patterson 21).
At the end of the war, Pat and Carolyn were married in a candlelight in Kosciusko’s First Presbyterian Church, and after a brief interlude back in New Orleans, he and Carolyn set off for Washington, D.C., to seek their fortune. Within the first month of their marriage she conceived with Frederick Gillis Patterson, Jr. Later, after her son, she also had her daughter Landsdale Martyn Patterson. At some point she met the Washington newsman and Civil War historian Scott Hart, who was then working for Kiplinger Newsletter. Scott wanted to help, and though he couldn’t offer any kind of position at Kiplinger, he had some good advice, ” Try to get on at the National Geographic magazine, Carolyn. Take anything available, even a job scrubbing floors. Anything to get you in the door. After that you can work your way up” (Patterson 22)
The National Geographic! The name itself gave her a thrill. It was another way of saying “travel,” “adventure.” To aspire to work for the National Geographic magazine was to aspire to start at the top. In the year 1962, Melville, her new boss, invited her to his office to announce that he was making her the Legends editor. With the job of assistant editor on the magazine, she would be the first woman editor. Patterson joined the magazine’s editorial staff, which she described as a “male society.” Patterson was charged with creating the captions, or legends, which accompanied the magazine’s photos. Patterson said “Week after week, I would churn out memos for the managing editor.” Although Patterson’s suggestions failed to impress her editor, he did reciprocate with a suggestion of his own: start writing (Miller 1A ).
Her first big story was Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965. Her next big story was in 1974, which made her the first white woman to ever visit the Txukanamels in the Xingu National Park. Later she planned an Open House, USA, that would bring the people from around the world to the United States for our bicentennial celebration. She still urges President Clinton to proclaim the year 2000 as the first Open House, USA, of the new millennium, to get the nation to invite the world (Patterson 50-98).
The year 1977 Patterson decided to pursue another dream and trace the Stevenson journey in France. Patterson never imagined that at the age fifty-six she might be required to pull a donkey over the very same terrain he walked and camp the same way he did. The year 1980, when Carolyn turned sixty, she and her crew traveled on Franklin River. In the year 1999 Carolyn marked her seventy-eighth birthday by donating a career’s worth of personal and professional papers to the Special Collections at Mitchell Memorial Library at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Mississippi. (Patterson 115).
“As the first woman editor at National Geographic, Carolyn showed the same sense of adventure in the office as she displayed on assignments abroad. Over the course of her thirty-six year career, she brought to National Geographic the talented young writers and editors who are seeing the magazine into the twenty -first century.” (Robert C. Booth).
Carolyn Bennett Patterson has walked her journey. As the first woman editor in 1960 of The National Geographic, she worked hard to accomplish what she did. She retired in 1960 ( Watkins 3E ) and has written her memoirs in a book called Of Lands, Legends and Laughter .
- 1922- Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi.
- 1933- Moved to Yazoo, Mississippi.
- 1934- Starts high school.
- 1941- Attends Mississippi College in Starkville Mississippi.
- 1942- Attends Louisiana State University.
- 1945- Married Frederick Gillis Patterson.
- 1949- Became a member of the National Geographic.
- 1962- Became the first woman senior editor for National Geographic.
- 1963- Made map notes of Gettysburg and Vicksburg known as the Battle Town today.
- 1963- Invited to speak at the annual rally in Bemidji, Minnesota.
- 1965- Covered Winston Churchill’s Funeral.
- 1973- Began promotion of Open house, USA, to get other countries involved with the United States.
- 1975- Spoke to French journalists.
- 1978- Traced Robert Louis Stevenson’s footsteps in France.
- 1980- Ventured into the interior of the Tazmania.
- 1986- Retired from The National Geographic.
- 1998- Of Lands, Legends and Laughter was published.
- 1999- Visited Mississippi State University to donate paper spanning from her 37 year career with The National Geographic.
A Review of Of Lands, Legends, and Laughter
by Chantal Ward (SHS)
Carolyn Patterson’s Of Lands, Legends, and Laughter is a book that shows how much freedom Patterson had and where she has been and how far she had to go to get there. I enjoyed the book. I really think that she is a great Southern woman. Carolyn Patterson shows how much courage she has had in this book, and she also shows that no matter how old she was, she could still pursue her dreams. I hope that the Open House USA will happen because she really seems as though she is looking forward to it in her book. I also respect the way she explains what she has seen with her vivid imagination. I also think that she should have written a little more about her children to let people know how she dealt with her job and her children all at the same time.
- Carolyn Patterson, 82; Senior Editor at National Geographic. LA Times (2003)
- Carolyn Bennett-Patterson Exhibit at Mississippi State University
- Patterson, Carolyn Bennett. Of Lands, Legends and Laughter. Book.1998.
- Watkins, Billy. “37 years with National Geographic takes Kosciusko Native Far From Home.” Clarion Ledger. 1 Dec. 1998: 1E and 3E.
- Miller, Hannah. “Editor Tells Tales of Life at National Geographic.” 20 Sept. 1998: 1A