Journalist and author Jeff Klinkenberg, who spent nearly four decades writing about Florida culture for the Tampa Bay Times, is this week’s featured guest. Jeff is the recent winner of the Florida Humanities Council’s Lifetime Achievement for Writing Award as well as a winner of the Florida Folk Heritage Award. He is also a two-time winner of the Paul Hansell Distinguished Journalism Award, the highest honor in state journalism, given annually to the writer with the best body of work by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors.
In our conversation, we talk about how Jeff got started writing about Florida culture, how he finds his stories and about some of his influences. Jeff also shares a few of his favorite stories.
Chris Cate:Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the sunshine state’s brightest leaders taking the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors. I’m your host Chris Cate and in this episode, created by Salter MitchellPR, our guest is journalist and author Jeff Klinkenberg, who spent nearly four decades writing about Florida culture at the Tampa Bay Times.
Jeff is the recent winner of the Florida Humanities Council’s Lifetime Achievement for Writing Award, as well as the winner of the Florida Folk Heritage Award. In our conversation we talk about how he got started writing about Florida culture, how he finds his stories, and he even shares a few favorite stories. And you can hear it all right now.
Jeff, thanks so much for being on the show. You’ve discovered and shared so many great Florida stories. I thought we’d start with the beginning of your own story. I know you grew up in Miami. How much influence did growing up in a vibrant location like Miami have on your path to becoming a writer?
Jeff Klinkenberg:My parents moved there in 1951 when I was two. They moved from Chicago. They were city folks. My dad was a musician. He thought it’d be a good place for a new start. Maybe less competition. My mother was a city woman. She didn’t want to come. It was really kind of gutsy when I think about it.
They moved to Florida in June. Only rich people had air conditioning. They move into this heat and humidity. The rainy season had started. My mother said “Ernie, what have you done to me?”
Bea and Ernie. That was their names. My mother never learned to like Florida. She had an Irish background. She had this virtue of curiosity. She could walk down the street and come back an hour later and spin stories about the people she had met and the conversations she had had.
So that was a gift. I grew up listening to stories. She would tell me “Did you know Mrs. [Costner 00:02:21]” blah blah blah blah blah. She was one of these people who thought that everybody was interesting. She passed that on to me.
My dad loved nature. He didn’t mind the heat. He didn’t mind the humidity. He didn’t like it when cockroaches flew across the room and landed on him, but he liked just about everything else. From the beginning we were going fishing when I was old enough. Fishing, I couldn’t get enough of that. I studied books so I could identify fish.
My dad liked to do these open water swims on the beach. When I was old enough, I had a mask and snorkel and I’d grab the back of his swim trunks and we’d swim along the beach. It was like being in the aquarium. That was a pretty amazing thing to see.
From there, we’d notice the birds. Went through a snake craze, and then got interested in history. Miami Edison High School, I was the sports editor. So I was writing then. Then I went to Miami-Dade Junior College. I was a sports writer then. Then University of Florida. I’m a journalism graduate. After that, worked for The Miami News, an afternoon newspaper that’s no more. Did a bunch of things. Was a sports writer.
I got kind of tired of that. I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller. A lot of journalism, you don’t get the chance to tell what I consider stories, where you sit down with somebody or you follow somebody, you go to somebody’s house. You just see how they live. You’re driving with them. If they’re wading in a swamp, you wade with them. You’re not sitting there with a notebook out, looking at somebody across the table and just interviewing them. You’re using all of your senses to report.
So I was covering the Miami Dolphins and I got tired of it. I was looking for a way to write about interesting people. I volunteered to be the outdoors editor. A lot of people thought I was crazy because I was 22 years old. I had the best beat, according to some people, on the whole newspaper. I’m traveling across the country. I’m talking to the Miami Dolphins when they’re the world champions. I just found it boring. I wanted to talk to real people who might be a little colorful.
I did that. I ended up at The Tampa Bay Times in 1977. Did all kinds of stories. Eventually, I started writing this column called Real Florida. Wrote it for many years. I’ve been lucky to have publishers who have wanted to put those stories into print. My latest collection of essays is called Son of Real Florida: Stories from my Life. This one is a little more personal than some of the other ones I’ve written.
I retired from The Times in 2014, though writers never retire really. I’ve been doing other kinds of writing on a freelance basis. It’s been a ball. I had the greatest gig that there could be, in at least Florida journalism, where I traveled from Pensacola to Key West. I met very interesting people, went to some beautiful places. Met some villains every once in a while. Ate a lot of fried chicken. Waded in swamps, picked up snakes.
The only thing my editor told me was “Go out and find me an interesting story” and that’s what I did.
One time, he compared me to Boo Radley. I said “What? Why are you comparing me to Boo Radley?”
He said “You’re not in the office that much. You never come to meetings. I’m not sure where you are or what you’re doing. Then I find a little treat in the hollow of a tree,” meaning one of my stories.
That was the great review I’d ever gotten. That editor was a guy named Mike Wilson, who’s now the editor of the Dallas Morning News. I dedicated my latest book to him.
Chris Cate:Is it right that you got your first newspaper job at 16? Was that the school newspaper job you’re talking about or is that actually for-
Jeff Klinkenberg:No. That was The Miami News. I was answering the phones in the sports department at night during basketball season. These basketball coaches would call in their scores. Who did what, who scored the most, and rebounds and all that. I would try to pick the best game and then write an account of it.
So I was doing that when I was 16 and 17 too. I interned at that newspaper. I did part-time stuff for them right through college.
Chris Cate:What was the first story you wrote about the quote Real Florida that made you think this is something that I could make an actual career doing and not just be a one time thing?
Jeff Klinkenberg:I think we named that column Real Florida, I did, in 1986. Long before that I was writing those things. When I talk about Real Florida, I think of authentic Florida, things that make Florida Florida. They’re often related to climate, animals, food, art, music, ways of life, that are often unique to living in this state.
There’s popular culture stories that pop up every once in a while that I like to write about. Iconic Floridians. So when I talk about Real Florida, I’m not necessarily talking about Disney World. I could. I just don’t think that way. I’m not thinking about this new narrative of weird Florida, which I kind of loath by the way. That Florida is the weird capital of the world, kind of a laughing stock of the nation because of the hanging [chads 00:10:19] and all that stuff. I don’t think of that as Real Florida.
Real Florida tends to be somewhat timeless. If you were to get my books and read through stories, you would probably find that to be true. There’s a timelessness to those stories.
Chris Cate:You’ve definitely been in plenty of unique places. Have you ever been working on a story in one of those unique or unfamiliar places and get worried you may actually be putting yourself in danger?
Jeff Klinkenberg:There’s been a few times. I was down in a cave one time with a bunch of younger people. I’m almost 69 now. We got ropes on. We’re pushing on one side of this passageway with our feet. We’ve got our shoulders on the other side of the passageway. I realized I was a little out of my league.
I’ve waded in a lot of swamps where I know there are alligators. I do think I’m in more danger when I’m driving down I-4. That drive from Tampa to Daytona Beach, that feels a little scarier than pretty much anything that at least natural Florida can dish out.
Chris Cate:I’m sure you have love for all of your stories but do you have one that is a favorite to tell at parties or when you’re among friends? Or that friends tell you “Hey. Can you tell that story again?”
Jeff Klinkenberg:I have a lot of stories like that. I’ve got one in my new book Son of Real Florida about a guy name Nathan Martin who I found living in the woods west of Gainesville. In his 70s. Never been to Miami, never been to Orlando. Didn’t wear shoes, or seldom wore shoes. Had two shirts. He was living this beautiful life that he loved. He could do anything. He could hunt. He could fish. He could slaughter a hog. He could build a house. He could do plumbing. He was extremely self-sufficient.
Eighth grade education. Yet, he had a reputation for having read his way through the Gilchrist County Library. He told me that wasn’t true. He didn’t read science fiction or romance novels, but he read just about everything else. I wrote about him. I reported that story over about a one month period. Started to go up there and spend a day with him.
One day, I went up. He was living in this … I would call it a cracker house. Kind of primitive house. He had one light and no indoor plumbing. He’d been reading the memoirs of US Grant, which is considered literature. Grant was an amazing writer. However, it’s 19th century prose. It’s not the kind of book that you would read while you’ve got TV and Seinfeld on in the background. Of course, Nathan didn’t have a TV. So that wasn’t a problem.
He wanted to talk about Grant and he wanted to talk about the Civil War. So we talked a little while. I realized that he knows a whole lot more about the Civil War than I do. He must have noticed that because he said “Well, let’s talk about World War II. You may know a little more about that.” So we did.
Many interesting things about him. He had feet that were almost like an opossum. He had the big yellow nails from going barefoot for many years. One of his shirts looked like it’d been clawed by a wild animal, which indeed it had. He had tried to free a bobcat from a fence and gotten clawed.
Just talking to you, I’ve given you this picture of an eccentric. However, he was very deep. He was a Thoreauvian figure in my opinion, Thoreauvian in that he liked simplicity. He had everything he wanted. He didn’t need a bunch of things. Thoreau was a little bit cranky, but Nathan is very approachable and he enjoys people stopping and talking to him.
One day, I stopped about 20 miles away at a McDonald’s. I bought us both cups of coffee. Brought the coffee to Nathan’s house. He said “Wow. That’s right good coffee.” It turned out he had never been to a McDonald’s before. We’re talking about somebody living in the 21st century. I wrote a profile of him and it won a bunch of awards and a lot of people told me later that that was the best profile I ever wrote. Maybe they’re right.
So he’s definitely one of them. There’s just been so many. There’s just so many interesting people. The thing about what I did was while some people were iconic or famous, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, for example, a lot of people when I approach them, either called them in advance or just stopped on one of my drives through Florida and asked questions, they were always a little bewildered about why I wanted to talk to them. They didn’t think they were that interesting.
It was terrific for them to open up their lives to me, to trust that I was going to tell their story respectfully. And that’s what I tried to do.
Chris Cate:What was your process usually like for trying to discover these Real Florida stories and how would you know if an idea was worth writing about?
Jeff Klinkenberg:It was different ways. Sometimes, say, in the spring, there might be a kind of story that I was looking for related to the season, or the same as winter. I have a pretty sophisticated sense of place about Florida. There were certain stories I probably would not do in summer. I wouldn’t write about mosquitoes, probably, in January.
Here’s an example. There was a mosquito outbreak in St Petersburg, PinellasCounty, where I live, one summer. People were calling and complaining. They were grilling burgers and being bitten on the ankles and thought it was the end of the world. The trucks were going down the street, spewing poison and all that stuff.
I grew up down in South Florida. I spent a lot of time in the Everglades. I realized these people who are complaining don’t know what real mosquitoes are like. So I went down to the Everglades National Park and hooked up with the chief naturalist. We went into the most mosquito infested areas of the park, just to experience mosquitoes like the Calusa Indians might have experience 500 years ago.
We had netting. We were wearing stuff. But I wrote that piece about it. It’s in a book called Seasons of Real Florida. I just love that. That was a story kind of based on something that’s happening in the summer, or mosquito season.
Of course, we’ve had some horrific hurricanes. I may write something off of that. I have people who would call me every once in a while, once they had read a few of my stories, and would say “Hey. I know somebody who’s doing this. You think you might be interested?” And maybe I was.
Sometimes I would just be driving somewhere and see something on the side of the road and think “I wonder if there’s a story here.” Just like my mother, I had the curiosity to ask people “Hey. What are you doing here? What do you think? Why are you doing this?” Next thing you know, you’re in their house and she’s cooking chicken and dumplings for you.
That’s really how I worked. I was extremely lucky to be able to do that as long as I did. Now newspapers, because of business and demographics and stuff, they’re much smaller than they used to be. Somebody like me, they would rather have 10 people covering government, schools. Whatever. Important stuff. But Florida culture probably wouldn’t make the cut.
When I was growing up though, in Miami, there were always writers who would interpret Florida for readers. I grew up reading John [Keesler 00:22:32] in The Miami News and Larry Thompson in the Miami Herald. The Miami Herald had a few people who did that.
In the 80s, the Herald had a guy named Al Burt actually in the 70s and the 80s, who had been a foreign correspondent. He’d been wounded. He couldn’t walk. He was going to retire but he decided no. I think I’m going to write about Florida. He did that. His wife tried to drive him everywhere.
He wrote these beautiful, elegant essays that I admired. There was a time when I thought “You know what? I want to be Al Burt.” Al and I became friends. We corresponded. It was very encouraging that somebody wanted to tell the story about Florida, apart from politics and apart from crime.
Al had his strengths and I had mine. Because of Al’s physical challenges, he couldn’t get in a canoe. He couldn’t wade in a swamp. He certainly wasn’t going to go down into a cave. So I was able to bring my reporting to those places. He wrote 800 word, beautiful essays. Some of mine were 4 or 5,000 words. It was kind of long-form journalism.
Chris Cate:I know you’ve done some teaching at the University of Florida in South Florida, and perhaps other places as well. What do you hope is the one main things your students learn from you about storytelling?
Jeff Klinkenberg:One thing that I really stress is getting out of the office. I don’t care who it is. Don’t call on the phone. Go to that person’s office. Go to that person’s home. Go to that person’s farm. Go to that person’s swamp. Whatever it is. When you’re writing a story, you’re assembling things that you will use to keep readers. Readers don’t want to read your story.
I would tell journalism students, or any writing students, stories have two different things. The first thing they need to have is broccoli. Broccoli is good for you. It’s full of fiber. When I would talk to an editor about a story I might like to do, I would talk about the broccoli. What’s important.
I’m writing about panthers here. It’s an environmental story because blah blah blah blah blah. Your story needs stuff. Science, hard fact. Broccoli. But to keep readers you also need some ice cream cones. That’s the human element. That can be a good quote, a good description. Nathan Martin’s bare feet. Those are the things that bring the story alive.
Chris Cate:That’s great advice.
Jeff Klinkenberg:If you’re just talking to somebody on the phone or whatever, you’re in a sterile office, you’re limiting yourself as to what you can use. You can use what somebody says but you may not have any sense of place. You may not have the opportunity to see that person really let their hair down. Maybe that person has his shoes off underneath the desk. You’d never know.
Chris Cate:That’s great advice. I do want to be respectful of your time. I want to wrap with four more questions that I ask every guest, the first being who is a Florida leader who you admire? It can be someone from any different industry or field, from the past or present.
Jeff Klinkenberg:I really admired … And I knew her. She was very encouraging. Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Her name was on that school where the mass murders recently took place. A lot of people said “Oh, my god. She must be spinning in her grave.” Of course, she would have hated the murders there, but that woman was a fighter.
I realized a lot of people didn’t know who she was. Marjory Stoneman Douglas was born in 1890. She came to Miami in 1915, after her marriage failed. She went to work for her daddy’s newspaper, the Miami Herald. Women were supposed to write about women’s issues. Cooking, garden club. She objected. She wanted to write about news. She did. She wrote poetry, short stories, fiction, and so forth.
In the 40s, she got a chance to write a book. It’s called Everglades: River of Grass. It’s still in print, published in 1947. The genius of that was, in Florida at that time, the Everglades was regarded as a swamp. It had been regarded as a swamp for centuries. Worthless. Drain it. Civilize it. Whatever.
She said “No. It’s not really a swamp. It’s a river of grass. It’s 50 miles wide. It’s 6 inches deep.” The connotation of river was much more pleasant than the swamp.
When she wrote that book she was 65 years old. It came out in 1947. She was 65. So in 70s and her 80s and her 90s, when the Everglades were imperiled, she would go to Washington. She’d go to Tallahassee. She would go anywhere where she could talk about the Everglades.
I corresponded with her, starting when she was about 98 maybe. I would send her stories that I’d written that had an Everglades connection. She would always send me back these nice notes.
In 1992, I went down to Miami and finally met her and spent a wonderful day with her. She was 102 years old and she spoke in perfect paragraphs. It was just memorable. She actually lived 6 more years. Died in her sleep.
For a couple years after I interviewed her, I would continue to send her stories. Again, she’d write back with some kind of commentary. So she was really an icon in my opinion. Someone who meant a lot to Florida and a lot to me personally.
Chris Cate:What is something or an issue that you think deserves more attention than what it’s getting right now in Florida?
Jeff Klinkenberg:Probably water. Water is something we don’t always think about. We turn on the facet and it comes out. There’s just probably too many of us living in Florida right now. There’s 21 million of us. Some of the springs are going dry. We have sinkholes. Some of the springs that aren’t dry are cloudy now because they’re being polluted from miles away, water seeping through the ground. So I really worry about that.
It’s hard science. It’s hard to alert people because, again, they turn on the faucet and the water comes out. They turn on their sprinklers to water St Augustine grass, which really doesn’t need to be in Florida. It’s a kind of turf that is always thirsty and requires a lot of chemicals.
If somebody starts telling people “Hey not only would you be limited in washing your car but you can only use so many gallons of water a day” … I don’t know if we’re ever going to come to that. But water is a big issue.
Water is a much harder sell than pythons. We have a lot of invasive plants and animals in Florida. They’re all over the state but the python is sort of the poster boy for invasives. It’s down in South Florida. It happened in the 90s. We kind of shut the door a little too late on the pet store industry. I’m not sure what’s going to happen there.
In Everglades National Park, the pythons are eating their way through the food chain. It’s very hard to get them all. A lot of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ work is still being done. At the same time, you’ve got these invasives that are changing the ecology of the whole Everglades system. That’s something of concern.
The other thing I’ll tell you, I talked a little bit earlier about newspapers and what’s covered and what isn’t. The kind of stuff that I wrote, that Al Burt wrote, isn’t really going to be covered anymore. There’s going to be a lot of interesting things related to history and culture that are going to be lost, I think, because there won’t be people who will want to write about them or broadcast about that or just won’t know.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope it’s not going to die with me. It’s hard to be optimistic.
Chris Cate:Do you have a favorite place to visit or a place that you’d really love to write about more than any other places in Florida?
Jeff Klinkenberg:I would say no. It just depends on the season. I do love the springs. That’s why I’m so concerned about them… There’s some springs that just hard to go to now because I remember how they were in the 50s and 60s. But some are still nice. When the weather is hot, there is nothing like going to a good spring. Into that cold, clear water. Seeing all the fish swimming around me, I’m a boy again.
In the winter, I love going down to the Everglades and to Big Cypress. I love going into the water where it’s safe. I love seeing snakes, though not too close. All that wildlife. It recharges my batteries.
The other thing I’ll tell you, sometimes people get doom and gloom about Florida. Sometimes I do. But there are a lot of things better now than when I was a kid. For example, when I was young, a boy, early teen, you didn’t see many alligators. They had been hunted legally and illegally for decades and decades. So the ones that were around were wary. Now we have a couple million of them, to a point where they can be a problem.
When I was a kid, we didn’t even know that the American crocodile inhabited South Florida. They were so rare. The American crocodile is coming back due to good luck and wildlife management, to a point where they’re reclaiming their historic range. All the way to Tampa Bay, the west coast, and up to Vero Beach on the east coast.
Bald eagles, ospreys, pelicans. They were an endangered species because of this pesticide DDT that was in the food chain. Now, I would say from September through May, I see bald eagles every day and I live in an urban area, St Petersburg.
Panthers. When I started writing about panthers, we didn’t even know if panthers still existed in Florida. Now we’ve got about 150 adults and half as many cubs. They’re still not in good shape because they’re pinched by development on both coasts. But young males are managing to swim across the Caloosahatchee River and advancing into North Florida. Recently, a couple females did. So there’s a possibility of a larger panther population.
Bears at one time were pretty rare. Now we have quite a few bears. It’s not that unusual to see bear. Even in the outskirts of Orlando, for example. So some wildlife is coming back. Now the trick, I guess, is to make sure there’s some habitats, there’s some places for them to dwell.
Chris Cate:One last question I have for you of these last four. That question is what is your favorite Florida sports team? Do you even have one?
Jeff Klinkenberg:I covered the Miami Dolphins for years. If they’re on TV, I may watch a little bit. Maybe not the whole game. On Monday morning, I may look in the paper and see how they did. I can walk to Tropicana Field, where the Rays play. So I see games during the season. I follow the Rays.
I went to the University of Florida so I’m a long suffering Gators fan. I may watch a couple of innings of a game, or a couple of quarters of a football game, and that’s it. So I’m not a sports fanatic.
Chris Cate:I really appreciate you taking the time today to share all these stories. You’ve got your new book out. You’ve written several in the past. People can find all of these stories. But thank you again for taking the time today.
Jeff Klinkenberg:Listen. Thank you for your time. I appreciate it.
Chris Cate:Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. This show is executive produced by April Salter, with additional support provided by Heidi Otway and the team at Salter Mitchell PR.
If you need help telling your Florida story, Salter Mitchell PR has you covered, by offering issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. You can learn more about Salter Mitchell PR at saltermitchellpr.com. You can also learn more about the Fluent in Floridian podcast and listen to every episode of the show at fluentinfloridian.com or by searching for the show using your favorite podcast app. Have a great day.