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In memory of contributing editor Bob Ardren.

Back in 1982, I had a brand-new job, as editor of a now-defunct magazine that also happened to be named Sarasota. I didn't know much about publishing--I'd landed the job when the equally inexperienced owner had asked me exactly what an editor does, and I'd realized that if he didn't know, maybe I could convince him that I did--and I knew even less about Sarasota, having moved here just a few months before. A few weeks into the job, I got a call from the public relations director at the Ringling Museum inviting me to lunch.

Bob Ardren showed up at noon, and we drove to Siesta Key's Gulf and Bay Club, which in those days had a bar that served food right on the beach. Bob and I hit it off immediately, and though I don't remember what we talked about--our families and backgrounds, probably; the museum, maybe a little--I do remember looking out at those dazzling green waves and feeling as relaxed and at home as I ever had in my life. That a business lunch could mean sitting in a place like this and talking to such a kind and kindred spirit seemed almost ridiculously unbelievable, and I realized I had found a career--and city--I would forever love. We didn't get back until after 3, and I can still see Bob, beaming as he shook my hand at the door, saying, "Well--another nice person has come to town."

I didn't know it, but I had just met someone who would not only become a dear friend, but who would, to me--and many others, including readers of this magazine, for which he's been a frequent contributor--come to represent the essence of Sarasota.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

A big, genial bear of a man, Bob enjoyed the new amenities and people that growth and gentrification brought; but Sarasota's classic attractions were what he really loved: the tropical landscape and waterways; funky old-Florida hangouts; and the parade of characters--artists, sailors, drifters, developers and dreamers hoping to reinvent and reinvigorate themselves--that has always been lured to our shores. They enlivened his stories and often became his friends as well.

His career here managed to hit all the key elements of old Sarasota. When he arrived from Iowa in 1976, with his then-wife and two young children, he shucked oysters at Walt's Fish Market until he was hired as head of public affairs for the Ringling Museum. He worked there 16 years, promoting exhibits and artists and insisting (sometimes to the displeasure of top management) that the museum should be accessible to everyone rather than an elitist enclave. A huge circus fan, he eventually headed up the Ringling Circus Museum.

But I like to think he found his true calling in the job he held for the last 13 years, as a reporter for Siesta Key's Pelican Press. A weekly newspaper with a small but talented staff, the paper gives its writers lots of freedom to choose their stories and follow their instincts, and Bob used to tell me, "I've got the best gig in America." He was like a character in John D. MacDonald's Flash of Green, the decent, incorruptible reporter in a sweltering Southwest Florida town that's about to explode with new development. Wearing flip-flops and an oversized tropical shirt, he was an ever-present figure at City Commission meetings and at sidewalk cafes up and down Main Street, as he covered the schemes, saints and sinners that have been reshaping downtown, never with any agenda but his unabashed love for the place.

Before Bob came here, he'd already had a varied career, as an editor at Better Homes and Gardens, an executive at GE and even a worker in a foundry. A true child of the '60s, he'd also trained for the Peace Corps and spent a few years just roaming around the country.

But he embraced Sarasota from the second he arrived. He bought a little blue house on Second Street, built around 1915 and shaded by giant oak and mango trees. In those days, downtown was decaying, as retailers fled to the new malls. In an article he wrote for us in 1999, Bob recalled how a friend warned him not to buy that house. "You don't want to keep your family in this neighborhood," the friend said. "You got junkies living on one side and a downtown going to hell on the other." But, Bob wrote, "Sarasota Bay was close by. We had a couple of crab traps down by the brand-new Selby Library [now the site of G.WIZ], cold beer and real Indian food were available in the John Ringling Towers down the block, and we had a sailboat moored at O'Leary's in Island Park. Who'd want to leave a spot like that?"

He was to live in that house--famously without air conditioning--almost all the rest of his life. Filled with books, art, and finds from thrift shops, it became a gathering place for many of the city's larger-than-life characters, with raucous dinner parties that lasted late into the night and stray cats he'd coaxed back to health with a diet of smoked mullet.

I always felt that Bob understood how to live in a way that few of us ever do. Sophisticated and well-traveled, he also relished the simplest pleasures--food, drink, the company of family and friends. For a few years, he wrote a column for us called "Fat City," about unpretentious places where the food was first-rate and, he said, "You're likely to be seated by your plumber, a retired circus performer or a county judge"--his dream guest list, if ever there were one. Even on a busy day, he might drive out to the New Pass Bait Shop for a cheeseburger (he said the best sushi in town was the live shrimp in the shop's baitwell) or share a cold beer with friends at sunset at O'Leary's. If I ran into him downtown, he'd urge me to stop for a cup of coffee and shake his head in gentle reproach if I said I had to hurry back to work.

A few years ago, at the height of the real estate boom, Bob sold his house to a developer, for a sum that would have ensured him a comfortable retirement--something few writing careers here provide. Shortly after that, he told me--gently and apologetically, because he knew how disappointed I would be--that he was no longer going to write for us and planned to cut back at the Pelican, too, to take more time for travel and adventures.

A few months later he was diagnosed with the cancer that killed him on the last day of 2007. He was 67.

It's easy to feel bitter that he never got the chance to enjoy his new financial freedom, but maybe that's not the way to look at it.

Bob lived every day with such zest and appreciation that he had more life than most of us ever will, no matter how many years we're granted. I'm trying just to feel grateful for that--but it's hard.

RELATED ARTICLE: OUT of the OFFICE

FUN AND FINDS FROM OUR EDITORS THIS MONTH.
"I recently discovered GREEN DOOR ORGANICS; every week I pick up an
overflowing bag of fresh, locally grown organic fruit, vegetables and
herbs. Selection varies, so each bag is a delicious surprise--and it's
only $14 for a small bag or $21 for a large one. Info:
organicveggies.net."--Megan McDonald, copy editor

"I'll be at the SARASOTA OPERA HOUSE--366-8450--on March 1 for the grand
reopening after $20 million worth of renovations. I got a sneak peek
during construction and can't wait to see the final version, plus see
and hear the staging of Rigoletto."--Kay Kipling, executive editor

"I finally drove to Myakka City to see the famous LIPIZZAN STALLIONS--
wow! They're beyond beautiful, with their white manes shimmering in the
sun, and all that testosterone makes for a thrilling show. The free
weekend performances end next month--call 322-1501."--Pam Daniel,
editorial director
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:FROM THE EDITOR
Author:Daniel, Pam
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Mar 1, 2008
Words:1337
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