ST. PETERSBURG — Former staffers of the Evening Independent, the former afternoon newspaper, always were a tightly knit bunch. They were adrenaline junkies, perhaps even more so than their arch competitor, then called the St. Petersburg Times, which owned the Independent and whose staff worked in the same building.
Employees of "the people's paper," as the Independent billed itself, arrived early to meet a noon deadline. The paper folded in 1986, but a group of former staffers have continued meeting for lunch ever since.
Now that high-spirited crew has lost two of its memorable figures. Jack Alexander, an exacting but beloved city editor and a 26-year veteran, died early Monday in a Palm Beach County hospice, of lung cancer. He was 84.
Rick Rutan, a 33-year employee who worked his way up from Linotype operator to police reporter, died Friday in his St. Petersburg home, of congestive heart failure. He was 86.
The morning of May 9, 1980 — when the Sunshine Skyway collapsed — tested the afternoon paper like few other events could.
Robert Stiff, the Independent's editor at the time, heard about the disaster on his car radio driving to work.
"I went to (Mr. Alexander) and said, 'What are we doing? Was somebody at the hospital? Was somebody at the bridge? Was somebody in a boat?'
"He said, 'Yes, yes, yes.' He had it covered. I was city editor at two papers, but I was never as good as he was."
Stories of Mr. Alexander's tough but inspirational leadership abound. "He taught me how to freshen up stories that I'd been thoroughly beaten on and make them look like they were new," said Mike Foley, a University of Florida journalism professor and former Times executive editor who got his start at the Independent. "He was just that good."
Several other former colleagues said they remember a teacher with a knack for pushing reporters right up to their limits; who sometimes forgot he had one cigarette going before he lit another.
"He was very demanding but we all produced," said Marilyn Brown, a 14-year reporter.
A native of Franklin, Ind., Mr. Alexander served in the Army and graduated from Indiana University, considered one of the nation's top journalism schools. He worked at several other newspapers before joining the Times' Bradenton bureau in 1957. He moved to city editor of the Independent in 1964, two years after the Times acquired the afternoon paper. He was married and divorced twice.
Mr. Rutan, by contrast, had no big-time degree. He grew up in Newark Valley, N.Y., dropping out of high school to enlist in the Marine Corps during World War II. He served in Guam.
He worked in the composing room of the Independent starting in 1949 and then briefly for other newspapers. The Marines called him back during the Korean War to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he served as a pistol instructor and Linotype operator.
He rejoined the Times but took classes at what is now St. Petersburg College and wrote a radio column. When technology shifted and fewer people were needed, he approached Stiff about making the leap to reporter.
Stiff had just the job in mind for a hard-scrabble worker who had clawed his way up from the bottom. "I thought I would try him on the cops beat. Let's see what happens," Stiff said.
Mr. Rutan started covering crime in 1974 and won over the respect of police officers.
"They would trust Rick where they would not trust some new cub reporter," said former St. Petersburg Police spokesman Bill Doniel.
Patrick McMahon, a former Times reporter and editor who is now an assistant editor with the Los Angeles Times, added this to a Facebook page frequented by former Independent alumni: "Every young redhot police reporter at the St. Pete Times in the 1970s and 1980s remembers being kicked to the curb a time or two by Rick, a tireless journalist and daunting competitor."
Stiff said he was pleased with Mr. Rutan's work, up to a point. "He became so close to police, he didn't want to do bad stories," Stiff said.
In 1981, Mr. Rutan was moved over to covering civic organizations. It was the perfect job for a gregarious and prolific man who remained active in many of those same organizations. He and his second wife, the former Jean Manderscheid, both performed as clowns for an organization affiliated with the Masons, and Mr. Rutan also played Santa Claus in the Santa Claus Parade. He retired from the Times in 1987, a year after the Independent folded.
Mr. Alexander retired from the Independent in 1983, and moved to Lantana two years later. For 12 years he worked for the National Enquirer organization, creating made-up stories for the Weekly World News.
He recruited his long-haired son, Rick, to pose in a tree chewing a nut as Parrot Boy, raised by Brazilian parrots. "In one story, my girlfriend lost her class ring," said Rick Alexander, "and found it in a loaf of bread 20 years later."
"He was doing a lot of the stories we wished we could do," Brown said. "It's the black newsroom humor that gets you through."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.