St. Pete Times reporter, UF alumnus to speak at Melrose Library
Published: Monday, January 10, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 10, 2011 at 3:35 p.m.
Longtime St. Petersburg Times reporter Jeff Klinkenberg is the kind of writer who makes people fall in love with his subjects by weaving a tapestry of finely crafted phrases and just the right words. The stories are mainly about an old Florida that still exists in its backwoods and along its side roads, out beyond the reach of Orlando's International Drive.
What: Author and St. Petersburg Times columnist will discuss his books, “Seasons of Real Florida” and “Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators”
When: 2 p.m. Friday
Where: Melrose Public Library, 312 Wynnwood Ave., behind the post office
“You have to look harder for it now,” said Klinkenberg from his downtown St. Petersburg home after a morning run. “There is a generic Florida that is everywhere now. If you parachuted out of a plane and landed, you might not know where you are. If you landed on Archer Road, you could be on Biscayne Boulevard, with the same box stores and strip malls.”
And he spoke for so many native or longtime Floridians when he wrote recently “Alas, Florida got modern.” He likes to write about the juxtaposition of that modern state with what he calls the “authentic” Florida.
“In Gainesville, there's this amazing campus and hospitals, The Harn, movie theaters,” he said. “But yet, we know if you go swimming in the wrong place, you could be devoured by a dinosaur. It certainly makes Florida a different place.”
The alumnus of The University of Florida's journalism school is scheduled to speak at the Melrose Public Library on Friday at 2 p.m. If you're not familiar with his work in The St. Petersburg Times or in his three books, he writes about people he says are like him — outsiders who have spent a lifetime looking in at “normal” people, not realizing that they have been making their own special magic all along.
“The people I write about, they don't have a PR machine around them,” he said.
And, as he slogs through swamps or hikes down trails, no alligator, cottonmouth moccasin or cloud of mosquitoes can keep him from his appointed task of bringing his tales to readers.
One recent story detailed the life of Citra resident Richard “Whitey” Markle, who proposed the recently passed “Quiet Lakes” ordinance that outlawed airboats after 7 p.m. on area waterways. Klinkenberg explained that it wasn't housing developers who so hated the airboats, but Markle who lives quietly along the shores of Orange Lake and who simply wanted to hear the owls hooting at night.
Much to his boss's delight, his work spurs at least a few people to buy the paper just to read his weekly stories.
“It's a little hard for me to know how many people put their quarters in the box to get to Jeff's work, but I am sure there are some,” said Paul Tash, The St. Petersburg Times publisher. “He'll take you places in the state that no one else goes. Klinkenberg really is a state treasure.”
The reporter describes himself as a “barefoot boy from Miami,” hailing from a time when he lived on the edge of the Everglades catching snakes and fish — and avoiding alligators — when all he really wanted to do was pick up the prettiest girl in school in his non-existent car and take her someplace fancy with money he didn't have. A photograph of him from that time shows a nice-looking boy holding two snook longer than his forearms. He spent hours in front of the mirror perfecting what would later be known as “air-guitar,” strumming The Beatles greatest hits on a wooden tennis racket and dreaming of girls screaming his name.
Outside his bedroom door lay a small home with no air-conditioning, a brother, Marty, seven years younger than he, two parents who never graduated from high school and who, he said, did their best. When he was a teenager, his father, Ernest Klinkenberg, put him to work at the famed Fountainebleau Hotel. But instead of waiting tables on movie stars, he was in the kitchen chopping mountains of onions as tears streaked his face. His mother, Beatrice Mary Grace O'Donnell, he said, had all the virtues and vices of an Irish woman. She could tell great yarns about the neighbors, but then lose her temper and hit him or his brother with the first thing she found handy.
Despite her temper, she managed to pass on her gift for story-telling to both her sons. Marty Klinkenberg is also a reporter.
“I used to publish my own newspaper as a kid, The Terrace Times, telling stories about neighbors. When I was 6, I wrote and illustrated a little book, ‘Davy Crockett and the Alligators,'” Klinkenberg said. “So, telling stories is what I have always done.”
After graduating from Archbishop Curley and Miami Edison High schools, he went to Miami-Dade Community College, where he was sports editor at the school paper. Then he headed off to the Gator Nation, where he endured what he calls the journalism boot camp of Buddy Davis. The Pulitzer Prize-winner taught a class on editorial writing and woe to the student who came unprepared or wrote something that was unsubstantiated. Klinkenberg described him as “like Professor Kingsfield in ‘The Paper Chase,' only very Southern.” Davis graded papers by tape-recording his thoughts and his own fact-checking, and would leave the tapes in the library for students to listen to.
“He would say, ‘Jeff, you say that this is going on and I just don't think this is true,'” Klinkenberg recalled of the teacher with the Southern drawl. “Then you'd hear him dialing the phone — and this was back in the days of rotary phones — and you'd hear his end of the conversation as he was (catching) you on a fact error.”
It was while working at The Alligator at UF that Klinkenberg finally got the attention of a girl, a fellow reporter. He and Suzanne Lash married and had three children: Kristin, 38; Peter, 35; and Katie, 31. None of them went into journalism, although they all dabbled in it in school.
Klinkenberg worked 60-hour weeks, beginning at The St. Petersburg Times in 1977. In the 1980s, he formed a band, “The Fabulous Nosecaps,” with some other St. Petersburg Times staffers, developing an R&B playlist and a sound that was “decent in kind of a garage band way.” He sang — or “screamed,” as he described it — while Roy Peter Clark, now head of journalism's Poynter Institute, played the keyboards and UF journalism professor Mike Foley played the drums.
“You always counted on your audience being pretty intoxicated,” he joked. “And you wanted their standards to be as low as possible.”
After 25 years of marriage, Klinkenberg and Suzanne divorced in 1997, which he attributes to “just getting tired of each other. We probably did not work as hard as we should have. We probably just took each other for granted.”
In the late-1990s, The St. Petersburg Times was sponsoring a series of health classes at the paper. As Klinkenberg sat in a meditation class, he noticed a woman from advertising across the room. He said Susan King works as hard as he does, at the time selling advertisements in the paper to large department stores and malls. After his divorce, he asked her out and in March they will celebrate their 13th wedding anniversary.
“I just knew,” he said when asked when he realized he wanted to spend his life with her. “Her sense of humor, her goodness, her kindness, her idealism, her work ethic — I didn't think there were people like that.”
Klinkenberg tries to exercise every day, either running or riding his bike in the mornings through his beloved St. Petersburg. He said he averages about 100 miles a week on his bike, but jogs less now that his knees — like so many of his fellow baby-boomers — are shot. At 5-foot-9, he looks fit and tan, although the receding gray hairline reveals his 61 years.
He gets a week to research and write a story and enough space in the paper to tell it eloquently. The reporter knows he has the job most journalists envy.
“They can't have it — I'm still doing it,” he laughed.
While he is living the life of Riley, he has only one complaint: “The job would be perfect if I didn't have to write it.”
Because at heart, he is still just that teen-aged boy catching snakes and fish, and exploring the world around him.
Contact Kimberly C. Moore at email@example.com.
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