Robert Dardenne, USF St. Petersburg journalism professor, dies at 66

Dr. Robert Dardenne was once a feature writer for newspapers. He died on Thursday.
Dr. Robert Dardenne was once a feature writer for newspapers. He died on Thursday.
Published October 22 2013
Updated October 23 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — Robert Dardenne was within sight of ending his career at the school he helped shape. In 14 months, the second person hired to the graduate journalism school at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg would finally have to figure out what to do with all those piles of papers on his desk, which replenished themselves as rapidly as he worked through them.

Maybe he would finally pick up some golf clubs to replace the set that predated his service in the Vietnam War. In the meantime, he would attend his 50th high school reunion in Baton Rouge, La., where he tore up his knee playing baseball.

And he would travel, catching up with friends in various countries, some of whom he had met by chance but kept in touch with for decades.

Instead, Dr. Dardenne is the subject of eulogies, bewildered Facebook postings, an impromptu memorial gathering over the weekend and another one planned for today outside the classrooms where he probed and prodded, in Louisiana-soft overtones, about what journalism is or should be and why people should care.

Dr. Dardenne, an associate professor who helped create the USF St. Petersburg Department of Journalism and Media Studies, died Thursday at home, apparently in his sleep, his family said. He was 66.

He had twice served as interim department chair, and once as an interim regional associate vice chancellor for research and graduate studies. He spent the 1999-2000 academic year on a Fulbright fellowship at Shanghai International Studies University.

Dr. Dardenne was teaching at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga when he was hired in 1991 by USF St. Petersburg graduate journalism founder Mike Killenberg.

"I said, 'You're going to set aside your own writing and your own research and help build a program,' " said Killenberg, 68.

Dr. Dardenne went all in, teaching theory while Killenberg handled journalism law. Sometimes they swapped stories with students over cigars in the Tavern at Bayboro.

"It wasn't just a classroom, it was a living, breathing dynamic," said Therese Hounsell, 45, a former student. "Those two together were hilarious and powerful and compelling. They made journalism something you wanted to do."

In his 20s and early 30s, Dr. Dardenne was a promising feature writer for a string of newspapers who didn't so much interview sources as hang out with them.

Once, in a Baton Rouge harbor, he talked his way aboard a visiting Russian ship through hand gestures and a belief that the right thing would eventually happen. He drained vodka with the crew, then returned to the offices of the Baton Rouge Advocate and wrote a story about who the visitors were and why they were there.

Robert W. Dardenne was born in 1946 in Baton Rouge, the son of a bartender and a licensed practical nurse. He graduated from Louisiana State University, then served in the Navy in the late 1960s. He edited an English-language newspaper in Mexico City, hitchhiked around Europe and worked as a star feature writer at the Rochester, N.Y., Times-Union.

"He had a unique voice," said Barbara O'Reilley, 65, who was then an investigative reporter. "Everybody looked forward to his stories. He had a distinctive style of writing that was so engaging and human and real and honest."

They married in 1978 and moved to Washington, D.C., where Dr. Dardenne covered the Federal Communications Commission. He eventually earned a doctorate from the University of Iowa.

At USF St. Petersburg, Dr. Dardenne pushed students to become critical consumers of media. In a guest column on Sept. 23, 2001, he urged Times readers to do the same, suggesting that the Sept. 11 terrorists "wanted the media to turn their camera toward the World Trade Center, and they wanted us to watch and to recoil in fear.

"We have to face these horrors but also to learn from them. That's something the media can't do for us; we must do it for ourselves."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at or (727) 892-2248.