ST. PETERSBURG — When the St. Petersburg Times sent reporter David Ballingrud to Panama to cover the attempted coup on Manuel Noriega it was a Tuesday in March 1988. He told his wife, attorney Marion Hale, he'd be home by Friday.
"He was home by Friday, but it was Friday six weeks later," Hale recounted. "There were no banks open and he had no way to get any money. The Times sent him some money when a photographer went down."
Ballingrud, who died unexpectedly at age 69 on Dec. 16, covered the dictator's downfall with the same enthusiasm he took to every story he wrote or edited during 28 years at the newspaper, now named the Tampa Bay Times. He chased hurricanes, witnessed liftoffs from Cape Kennedy, covered classical music, courts, politics, law enforcement and more.
"The role he definitely took was the (Page) 1A lead story on breaking news," said Rob Hooker, a former Times editor. "Nobody was better at scooping up the rich details in feeds from a bunch of colleagues, then weaving them into a clear, compelling narrative and making deadline."
The Columbia space shuttle disaster, the Sept. 11 attacks, anthrax bioterrorism, Hurricane Charley — all carried Ballingrud's byline.
"Dave was one of our go-to guys — you could absolutely count on high-quality work and unmatched integrity no matter what the assignment. He would tackle complex topics, particularly in the realm of science and space, and make them understandable," said Times editor Neil Brown. "He was truly a pro."
The native of Thief River Falls, Minn., received his journalism degree from the University of North Dakota. After four years in the U.S. Coast Guard, he landed his first newspaper job with the Hollywood (Fla.) Sun-Tattler. He went on to the Fort Lauderdale News, where he met Hale and was her editor when she was a reporter covering courts. He started his career at the St. Petersburg Times in 1980, retiring in 2008.
Hooker said kindness was Ballingrud's leading attribute, and his family his most compelling interest.
"When he talked about people he put the most positive spin on them. Nothing was more important to him than Marion and the kids. When he talked about them he positively glowed," Hooker said.
Ballingrud's kindness struck Hale early on.
"We used to go down to the Keys when we lived in Fort Lauderdale. He used to stop the car and park in the middle of the road to save the turtles. He would pick them up and move them off the road," she remembered. "He always cheered for the underdog in every single game he watched. … He was always for the poor and oppressed. He was always for the little guy."
Ballingrud died after a routine medical procedure. Hale shared the news with friends in an e-mail, ending it with the following:
"There is no such thing as a routine medical procedure. Cherish those whom you love."
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed. Contact Katherine Snow Smith at [email protected]