USF St. Petersburg Journalism and Media Studies Professor Bob Dardenne died in his sleep last Thursday night at the age of 66. He’d been planning to retire next year after more than two decades of teaching in the program, serving twice as director.
Last Sunday afternoon, current and former students and faculty poured bourbon into plastic cups at an impromptu memorial near the campus waterfront, sharing memories of their friend and teacher. Via email and Facebook, I asked for more Dardenne stories.
First, my own: I met him when I was a freshman in his Classics of American Journalism class, an 18-year-old who already knew it all. Quickly, and grinning wickedly behind his great white Dumbledore beard, he cut through the bullshit I’d come to rely on.
“It was like he could pick up on the people with a natural smart-assness about them and give back,” my good friend and fellow journalism graduate Kelly Steele said on Friday. “Like a secret language only the two of you could speak.”
Weekly injections of media theory via Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman came with a hearty side of narrative journalism by John Hersey and Melissa Faye Greene.
“Bob loved stories, but he would insist on calling news ‘stories’ articles,” fellow journalism professor and friend Tony Silvia wrote. “We would argue about the difference. I’d say ‘article’ was something in a scientific journal; a story was something people would actually want to read. He’d laugh and say, ‘But you can make up a story. You can’t make up news. At least you shouldn’t.’ He had trumped me with the truth; the best I could hope for was a truce. I realized with Bob’s passing that he could out-argue anyone, using his disarming humor along with his impeccable sense of logic. And in those rare moments when he couldn’t out-argue you, there was always a nod that maybe just this one time your view was more on target than his own: ‘Maybe so,’ he would say, in his Baton Rouge drawl.”
He worked as a reporter and editor in Louisiana, New York, Washington, D.C., and Mexico City. Feet crossed atop his desk, Dardenne told me once of driving a Volkswagen (a Beetle, I think) from Rochester to Mexico City. The car was stolen after he arrived, but somehow he tracked it down and wouldn’t you know it, he drove the damn thing back to Rochester.
Upon entering Dardenne’s office, students were greeted by a clipping of a Hunter S. Thompson quote:
“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
Dardenne’s open-door office policy gave us all a good excuse to talk.
“Occasionally, we discussed journalism, but mostly, we deviated from the topic,” Caitlin Reagan, former graduate assistant and master’s program alum, wrote. “Topics ranged from retirement funds to the financing of porn websites to the delicate construction of baklava to the best happy hour specials in St. Pete.”
He cautioned against using clichés. He told us not to use big words just for the sake of it, urging, “Use, not utilize.” He knew how to stretch a student’s brain to the limit, forcing us to think constructively and consider opposite perspectives.
“We weren’t always friendly, but that was okay,” wrote Rob Bibelhauser, master’s program alum. “A professor’s job, if he or she is any good at it, isn’t to be your friend. It’s to find the weakness in you — in my case, stubbornness and misplaced indignation — and help strengthen it. Dr. Bob Dardenne showed me that what I had long before accepted as black and white were actually just varying shades of grey. He taught me how to think.”
He knew how to light a fire under a student’s ass, using a careful combination of fact-based observations and knowledge of each student’s potential. “His proximity to my school and my place of work meant that I couldn’t get away with shit,” Matthew Parke, former Tavern at Bayboro employee and master’s program alum, recalled. “My best class would always be the one he had after class, when he would walk into a lonely and quiet Tavern on a Monday night, put his arms down on the bar and say with bombast, ‘One of your finest, my good sir!’ He rarely repeated himself. That’s what made him so damn interesting.”
Sunday, as we tipped back swig after swig, Parke remarked how he’d encouraged Dardenne to watch Mad Men. Our professor had no desire to watch the show that depicted the sexism and racism he’d railed against as a journalist years ago.
“I remember telling him to check out HBO’s Girls because he might be interested in the feminist themes,” Wendy Biddlecombe, master’s program graduate, recalled. “He said he would never watch a show called Girls because the show was about 20-somethings and they were ‘women,’ not ‘girls.’”
Dardenne looked forward to retirement. Months ago, master’s program graduate Christopher Dorsey and Dardenne caught up at the end of a TEDx reception downtown.
“He told me about an ambitious book he was writing which sounded like it would become his ‘magnum opus,’ so to speak, but he didn’t think anyone would want to read it,” Dorsey wrote. “I urged him to finish it anyway, because I selfishly wanted to read it, and because it might have unintended ripple effects that may just surprise him.”
Perhaps the unintended ripple effects of his death on those who knew him would have surprised him, too.
An official memorial took place Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 23, on the campus of USF St. Pete in the courtyard adjacent to his department. Our thoughts go out to his wife, Barbara O’Reilley, and son Rob.
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