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Remembering Ardren

Tonight, around 5:30 p.m., the Pelican Press newspaper was tossed from a car driving by, and landed in my driveway. From somewhere in the recesses of my mind, for some reason, I thought “Oh, good, I get to read Main Street Beat.” As soon as the thought came into my head, of course, it rushed back out again. Bob Ardren, the writer of that column I used to so look forward to, has been gone for well over a year now.

I really don’t know why Bob popped into my head this evening, except that he was a great writer with a deft style and two fingers always on the pulse of this city — like no one else has ever come close to, and tonight, when that Pelican plopped onto my driveway, I was wading ankle-deep in a first pass of an essay about a relatively sensitive subject in Sarasota, a piece I just can’t get my keyboard wrapped around. A story Bob probably could have whipped out in short order and long results.

Here’s the column I wrote after Bob passed away. It appeared in the Pelican Press in January 2008.
Bob, I barely knew you

I didn’t know Bob Ardren – the inimitable and venerable Pelican Press reporter who passed away last month. Bob was the ultimate cool cat (with the leonine looks to match) who amused, informed, and probably irritated at least some of the many Sarasotans who were diehard fans of his Main Street Beat column. I was one of those fans.

I met him once in 2005 at a holiday party. I was, as usual, without a date and didn’t know a soul at the party. Bob invited me to join him and his girlfriend, Cathy, at their table, which I gladly did.

Over the next couple of years, I never had much occasion to run into Bob. My column started in 2006, but I work out of my home and I imagine he did the same – that is, when he wasn’t working tableside at some downtown café soaking up the Main Street zeitgeist.

I always wanted to be “in” Bob’s inner circle of writer friends. Early on, I had heard that he and good friend Jack Gurney (another highly-regarded Pelican writer) regularly spent late Friday afternoons with other writers and local wits at O’Leary’s on the bayfront, in a Sarasota-equivalent of the famed Algonquin Round Table (only at O’Leary’s the tables are of the picnic-style variety). I hankered to join them, and eventually in late 2007, I did get invited by Jack to swing by; but by then, sadly, Bob wasn’t showing up anymore on a regular basis.

I did run into Bob once — one night in April last year. I was attending a Forum Truth event at Sarasota Municipal Auditorium to hear a talk by Washington Post writer David Broder. It so happened that Bob was sitting directly in front of me.

I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around. It was clear he didn’t remember me, so I reminded him of our meeting two years earlier and told him that I, too, was now writing for the Pelican. He didn’t seem to know my column (which brought my ego down a notch or two) but we ended up having a lively conversation. And, as I imagine must have happened frequently wherever Bob went, folks seated nearby – all who seemed to know Bob’s column — started chatting with us and laughing a bit, as we all waited for the lecture to begin.

After it ended, Bob made a beeline for the speaker. I looked on wistfully – trying to compel myself to approach Broder too, but my shyness got in the way. Instead, I headed for the auditorium exit, and when I reached the door, took a look back toward the podium.

There, standing right next to Broder who was surrounded by a small crowd, was Bob, notebook in hand, right in the thick of things. I imagine that was exactly the way he liked it.

Even though Bob didn’t know me from Adam, he gave me a lesson that night. He showed me how he inserted himself into the action, effectively, but unobtrusively. Sure, he was networking and doing some of the talking, but mostly, he was listening.

I think that’s one of the key reasons why Bob was so successful and well-liked. Why so many people confided to him all the news that was fit to print (and probably lots more that wasn’t); and why so many have mourned his passing: His laid-back affability encouraged people to talk; his skillful listening made them feel heard.

Though I wasn’t fortunate enough to even superficially get to know Bob Ardren, on the two occasions our paths did cross, he treated me as if I were some bigwig, downtown VIP worthy of his easy smile and careful attention.

I think that was his secret. To Bob, everyone was a VIP … and that’s what made him one, too.

Posted on March 25th, 2009Comments RSS Feed
2 Responses to Remembering Ardren
  1. […] Speaking of the Pelican Press, MC Coolidge reposts a remembrance she wrote of former Pelican columnist Bob Ardren after he died early last year. […]

  2. Stan Zimmerman
    March 26, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    Thanks for the reminder, MC. Bob Ardren was the second or third friend I made in Sarasota when I blew into town in 1975. He was rail-thin then, and I watched his girth and influence grow over the decades as he raised his kids, provided behind-the-scenes leadership at the Ringling Museum, and migrated to the Pelican.

    One of the things we shared…we were homemade reporters, perhaps the last of our generation with no J-school experience, not even a college degree. OJT reporters, tongue-lashed by tough editors to get the story right, hard knocks, late nights, crime scenes, mean cops. I went on to get “educated” in journo, which was less-than-inspiring. Bob kept soldiering on. While his column provided a personal touch, his real contribution to our community was his honest-on-deadline reporting of City Hall. The mundane, tedious and absolutely vital news the city needed.

    He asked several times if there were any courses for columnists, where he might learn how to do it better. Never heard of any, I told him. Just keep on writing from your heart and you’ll do just fine. He did, and he did. And I miss him terribly. s/Stan Zimmerman


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