Taylor Batten

Thank you to 3 women who shaped Charlotte and are now leaving the scene

By Taylor Batten

Editorial Page Editor

Emily Zimmern, former executive director and president of the Levine Museum of the New South, will chair the Niner Nation Remembrance Commission, UNCC officials said.
Emily Zimmern, former executive director and president of the Levine Museum of the New South, will chair the Niner Nation Remembrance Commission, UNCC officials said. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

We should pause for just a moment to reflect on three women who have helped shape Charlotte in fundamental ways over the past 20-plus years, and who are now all leaving the stage at the same time.

If you haven’t heard of Emily Zimmern, Susan Patterson or Cheryl Carpenter, that doesn’t diminish the incredible good they have done, largely behind the scenes, in making this city more compassionate, inclusive, just and informed.

Much has been made of the changing nature of leadership in Charlotte. The old, centralized model, which had been driven by a handful of business leaders, began to fade some years ago. With changes at our giant banks, former Bank of America chief Hugh McColl warned we could no longer rely on the “two rich uncles.”

So think of Zimmern, Patterson and Carpenter as the nieces of a next generation. They are among the scores of leaders in business, nonprofits, politics, faith, journalism and education who now make up Charlotte’s new leadership quilt. This community will miss them.

Zimmern stepped down this month after 20 years as president of the Levine Museum of the New South. Patterson is retiring after 14 years as the Charlotte program director for the Knight Foundation. And Carpenter is leaving the Observer after 32 years, 10 as the managing editor, to lead McClatchy’s Washington bureau. Each made her mark.

In the mid 1990s, Charlotte suffered a series of shootings of unarmed black residents by white police officers. Violent protests loomed. Zimmern helped lead an effort to address the tension through a new community-building task force. She brought people of diverse backgrounds together and built bridges, something she would do for the next 20 years. Charlotte remained peaceful, both then and after more recent police shootings.

“Emily not only built the museum but has also been a huge factor in building community,” lawyer James Ferguson told me Thursday. “She not only documented history through the Museum of the New South, she has herself been a figure in helping build community. That’s what her life has been about, bringing people together.”

Patterson gave away $50 million in Knight Foundation money during her tenure. Anyone can give away money, but Patterson did it with a deep love and understanding of the community, and a passion for the arts, education and social justice. Her fingerprints are everywhere, from Project LIFT to the Knight Theater to the Carolina Thread Trail.

“One of our biggest champions and brightest thinkers,” Michael Marsicano, president of the Foundation for the Carolinas, calls her.

Friend Dianne English said a recent Gloria Steinem quote applies to both Zimmern and Patterson: “We were at the core of something, but we were not the something.” Each was involved in pivotal projects, but knew it was about the community, not about her.

Behind the scenes at the Observer, Carpenter molded stories and journalists alike – in each case making them better. She had a hand in three projects that were finalists for Pulitzer Prizes, and countless other awards. Every piece of investigative journalism and in-depth storytelling that has appeared in the Observer over the past 20 years – and their writers – were influenced by Cheryl Carpenter.

“Words cannot begin to express how much she will be missed here in Charlotte,” editor Rick Thames said.

Thank you, Emily, Susan and Cheryl. We owe you.