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Former NPR copy editor Patricia Cole, known for her quick wit and editing eye, dies

Patricia Cole (left) strove to make every NPR story she touched better, and she embraced the silliness that sometimes breaks out in a newsroom. She's seen here with her friend Maquita Peters.
Maquita Peters/NPR
Patricia Cole (left) strove to make every NPR story she touched better, and she embraced the silliness that sometimes breaks out in a newsroom. She's seen here with her friend Maquita Peters.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or are in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. This story also includes references to rape.

Patricia Cole, a veteran copy editor whose sharp eye, quick wit and kind heart made her a cherished colleague at NPR and other news outlets, died on Friday at age 46, setting off a cascade of mourning and remembrance.

"Patricia loved editing, and she really loved politics," said Dana Farrington, deputy editor at the Washington Desk. "She saved me by catching mistakes no one else would, more than I can count. I'm grateful for her collaboration, her enthusiasm and her commitment to journalism, even when it was very hard."

Similar notes — from correspondents, editors and hosts — came from all corners of NPR. Patricia saved us, they said, over and over: from our own mistakes, from confusing our audience and from the chaos of hectic news cycles.

The messages came after Patricia's brother shared the news of her death.

"There is no easy way to share news like this," Michael Cole wrote on his sister's Facebook page. "Unfortunately, Patricia lost her long battle with depression and passed away on Friday night at Holy Cross Hospital in Maryland. We all hope and pray she is at peace."

She embraced spontaneity and diligence

Patricia had a knack for writing strong headlines, which won her first place in a 2012 national contest. She then became a judge for headline competitions run by ACES: The Society for Editing.

She also sought out moments of delight — a vital habit that has helped many journalists cope with stress and fatigue.

"Among my favorite newsroom moments with Patricia would be the Saturdays when I'd stop by her desk to offer her fave — some Earl Grey tea and some of my Bajan tea biscuits," said her close friend Maquita Peters, an NPR senior editor. "Her face would light up as she sprung to her feet and hugged me."

"It was tough to have to work weekends, yes, but people like Patricia made it such a joy," Peters said. She noted Patricia's insistence that wearing a particular greenish-blue T-shirt would bring good luck, ensuring their shift would be manageable.

Patricia was also passionate about cats and other animals, and in the Zoom remote-work era, her video meetings were frequently attended by Hudson, the latest in a long line of ginger cats she owned. He is now being taken care of by Patricia's aunt.

A kid with a plan: journalism

"Other people figure out who they're going to be at some point," Michael Cole told NPR, remembering Patricia. "She knew she was going to be a journalist forever."

"That was the only thing she was ever going to want to be," he said.

Michael said he was recently reminded of that early decision when he realized Patricia had used the name of her high school journalism teacher in Nutley, N.J., as a password.

Her plan worked.

Patricia's career spanned over 20 years, from her college newspaper to newsrooms including the Orlando Sentinel, The Columbus Dispatch, The Washington Times, The Star-Ledger and the Law360 news service.

"I can hardly wait" was how she responded to her job offer from NPR, as Senior Supervising Editor Desiree Hicks recalls. "She never wavered in her enthusiasm."

Patricia joined NPR in 2017; she left the network last year. Former colleagues remembered how Patricia brought insight and clarity to a wide range of stories, whether it was the turbulence of U.S. politics, the drama of Olympic sports or the tragedy of war.

"Patricia was the best journalism has to offer: a tough editor with a critical eye who cared about what matters most — getting the story right, making sure it's fair and that words have meaning and are important," digital editor Avie Schneider said.

"She saved all of us countless times. I will miss her."

Treating life like an open book — even the painful parts

A testament to the power of Patricia's impact is that remembrances on her Facebook page are coming from people who worked with her across her career — all the way back to The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper at Pennsylvania State University.

Patricia also had extraordinary courage. While in college, she wrote with searing honesty about her experience of surviving rape as an 18-year-old freshman. One year after writing an anonymous column, she put her name and photo on an update in which she asked the question: "I didn't do anything wrong. Why should I be the one who should feel guilty every time I tell someone or they find out?"

She noted the frequency of rape and the years of trauma and fallout it can impose on survivors.

"This column is for the people who still don't even know that what was done to them was wrong," she wrote.

When NPR faced a reckoning over an executive who was forced to resign in 2017 after accusations of sexual harassment, Patricia played a big role in the group of women who pushed for change, said business reporter Camila Domonoske.

It was proof, Domonoske said, that "in addition to making our stories better, she really wanted to make NPR a better place."

Patricia was also candid in discussing her struggles with depression. And she repeatedly lent her strength to others, as seen in a Facebook post from last December, when she encouraged friends who were facing the holiday season amid personal losses and grief: "There is no right way to cope," she wrote. "Just know: Everyone will screw up once in awhile, and you're doing great."

The Cole family mourns Aunt Patti

As news of her death spreads, Patricia Cole is being remembered as a valued editor as well as a loving daughter, sister and aunt. Known as Aunt Patti, she encouraged her niece's and nephew's interests and cherished their time together.

Patricia and her family also shared an enduring passion for Star Wars, as well as the New York Football Giants — whose stadium is near their hometown in New Jersey.

The Cole family announced that a Mass will be held at 10 a.m. on Thursday at the Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

"All are welcome, to celebrate her life and pay respects to her family. In lieu of flowers, donations in Patricia's memory may be made to the ASPCA," Michael said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.