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With a drink in hand, USF St. Pete remembers late professor



Bring your flasks and your paper-wrapped bottles and meet us at the beach - Sunday, sundown, the waterfront. Shot glasses, if you could spare some. Rain or shine.

Ren LaForme answered the invitation he'd sent out by showing first, before 5 p.m., to the pavilion on the University of South Florida St. Petersburg waterfront. One point seven five liters of George Dickel Tennessee sour mash whiskey, 80 proof, in his girlfriend's backpack.

More trickled in for the "Outlaw Bourbon Party for Bob Dardenne."

"No cop is going to pinch us for this, but I wish they did," said Wayne Garcia, a 2009 master's graduate and a journalism teacher at USF in Tampa. "Bob would've loved it."

Bob Dardenne died unexpectedly at home on Friday. A journalism professor, he'd been with USF St. Petersburg for 22 years. Twice, he'd chaired the department. He planned to retire next year.

The university has planned a vigil for Dardenne at 3 p.m. on Wednesday. But many of his students have since graduated and gotten jobs - some even in journalism - and they knew they couldn't cut out that afternoon.

So the unofficial event was born. LaForme, who finished his master's at USF St. Pete this spring and now works at Poynter (which owns the Times), planned the "Outlaw" toast.

"Looking out on the water with a little bourbon on hand seemed like old Florida," LaForme said, "and I think Dardenne was a lot of bit of old Florida."

He didn't trust the Internet. When LaForme turned in a paper a few minutes after deadline, he'd get an email the next day: "LAFORME IT SEEMS YOU WERE A LITTLE LATE." Everyone has an all-caps email story.

He liked to talk in tangents, tease students about their mustaches, dissect media's role in culture. Sometimes he'd seem to be taking intense notes on what you were telling him. Peek over and he'd doodled all over the page.

Hannah Ulm, a 2011 undergrad who now works in marketing, remembered his wide-ranging stories and dry humor. There was always a message. "He was telling us not to take it easy. Not to play it safe, but to take chances."

On his last day of class, Wednesday, he teased senior Ryan Ballogg about his mustache. Did it twirl like that by itself?

Ballogg told him it did, though in truth, he styles it that way. He thought Dardenne was in an exceptionally good mood that day. He'd always thought of the professor as the Dumbledore of the journalism department.

"My first day of grad school, I told my boyfriend the dude from 'The Big Lebowski' is my teacher," said Wendy Joan Biddlecombe, a 2012 master's grad who now reports for Hernando Today. "I like to think we were friends."

They bonded over bourbon. Biddlecombe drank it neat, and Dardenne thought that was cool. He was rumored to nip it before class. "That would explain some of his lectures," LaForme said. He thinks Dardenne had bourbon in his veins.

Staff and professors and students passed around the plastic cups of whiskey. It smelled acrid and sweet and a little bit like sunscreen.

For the toast, LaForme talked about finding out, getting a text message at a journalism conference on Friday. "I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe the news," he said. "The next place I went was a bottle. After that was a little sadness."

But, "I feel lucky to have known him." He told his fellow alumni and students, "Aspire to be the giant that Bob Dardenne knew we all could be."

They poured back their shots. They coughed and spit and someone shouted, "Where did you get this stuff?" They laughed and kept going through the bottle.

[Last modified: Monday, October 21, 2013 5:58pm]


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