ST. PETERSBURG — Scott Taylor Hartzell's friends never got much personal information out of him. Before they could try, he would pepper them.
How are the kids? The wife? What are you reading? What did you think of this movie?
"He was always asking questions, like a little pingpong ball," said Ray Arsenault, co-director of the Florida studies program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "He was very curious about things. He really had all the skills of a good reporter."
Mr. Hartzell moved to St. Petersburg from New Castle, Pa., more than 20 years ago. He majored in journalism and wrote for the Crow's Nest student newspaper at USF St. Petersburg.
On campus, he always popped into instructors' offices, ready with conversation. He was small and recognizable, about 4-foot-6 with a weathered face that made it hard to guess his age.
Mr. Hartzell wrote stories with great care and never made less than an A.
"He had really intense journalistic curiosity about the way things developed and how things were," said his friend and former journalism professor Bob Dardenne. "He was pretty tireless in poring over documents."
St. Petersburg fascinated him.
"I've always very much admired history, even as a child," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 2006. "When I moved down to St. Pete, I was just fascinated with the amount of interesting people, the wonderful architecture — especially during the 1920s, when we had that big economic boom — and the many, many colorful people."
More than 10 years ago, he began writing a historical column for the Times. He profiled a plumber who developed Sunken Gardens. A city councilwoman who invited constituents to her living room. A fish salesman who became mayor.
"He was able to find stories about St. Pete history that weren't just the commonplace stories that people always trot out," said Jon Wilson, a retired Times writer. "I thought he was a real good sleuth."
Eventually, Mr. Hartzell wrote several books, including Remembering St. Petersburg, Florida: Sunshine City Stories. He spoke at venues including the St. Petersburg Museum of History. He wasn't polished, but he was engaging, and people liked him.
"He really brought humanity to much of what he did," said Sudsy Tschiderer, special events coordinator at USF St. Petersburg. "He really liked interaction with people, because he really liked to learn."
His friends knew he had a disability, though they weren't sure exactly what. He dealt with several health problems recently and walked with a cane, they said.
Mr. Hartzell died on Aug. 20. He was 56.
His ashes will be placed beneath a tree at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.