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Flash of smile, camera gone from our lives

(ran PC edition)

Citrus County lost one of its brightest lights on Tuesday. The St. Petersburg Times lost a beloved family member.

Bob Moreland, one of the best journalists to ever snap a camera shutter, died at the Hernando-Pasco Hospice in Brooksville. He was 76 years young.

As a news photographer for 40 years, Bob was always in the background, capturing special moments in his unique way. But to Times staffers and his legions of friends around Citrus County, especially his buddies in Homosassa, Bob was a beacon of joy. Frowns didn't last very long around him.

It's hard to say what people remember most about Bob: his award-winning photographs or the parties he threw at his Homosassa home. Both are legendary.

And, sometimes, they were one and the same.

Bill Stevens, the Times' news chief for our three North Suncoast operations, had worked with Bob since 1979. On Tuesday, he recalled the time there was an emergency at the Crystal River nuclear plant.

"It was shortly after Three Mile Island, and photographers from all over flew into Crystal River to cover the event. Bob let them use his place in Homosassa. Guys were camping on his floor and using needle-nose clips to connect to telephone receivers to send black and white photos. They all knew Bob, the Associated Press and United Press International photographers.

"And," Stevens noted, "Bob kept everybody in beer, too."

Times writer Barbara Behrendt knew Bob perhaps better than any of us. To her, Bob was much more than a colleague. He was the guy who hosted parties where she got to know the people of Citrus County (everybody came to a Bob Moreland party) and the guy who loaded stuff onto his pickup truck to help her move.

"He taught me how to clean shrimp while sitting out on his dock," said Behrendt who, as a young woman from Ohio, had never before seen shrimp that wasn't cleaned and cooked and nuzzling a bowl of cocktail sauce.

She remembered when she and another reporter got Bob a cat as a pet. "The next time we went to Bob's house, he had already taught the cat how to drink beer. It later moved in with a shrimper up the road."

Everyone in the office has a Bob tale. This is Times writer Jim Ross' remembrance:

"I met Bob in September 1989 on my first day at the Citrus Times. A group of us ate lunch at the old Courthouse Cafe, a greasy spoon on Main Street in Inverness. I was very young and very eager to start my career. Bob was cool and relaxed. I would grow older and more settled at work, but Bob never changed. He was always the steady hand.

"One day, in March 1991, I was working Sunday when a plane crashed in a marshy section of the Chassahowitzka River, just inside the Hernando County line. We would later learn that the three men on board died.

"I freaked out. Didn't know what to do or how to cover this story.

"I'd still be standing on the dock in Chassahowitzka if it weren't for Bob, who found a boat and driver to take us from shore to the crash scene."

Perhaps no one at the Citrus Times benefited more from knowing Bob than the young photographers. Having the chance to work alongside a living legend was an amazing bonus.

Ron Thompson, who has been taking photos in Citrus County since 1989, said, "Bob always made everything look so easy _ and good. We young photographers would be at an assignment and struggling with how to capture the right image, and Bob would walk up, take a look around and _ bang _ he'd have the shot. We'd be looking at each other and saying, "How did he do that?'

"Even today," Thompson went on, "when I'm at a tough shoot, I'll ask myself: What would Bob do?"

As a new editor arriving in Inverness in 1988, I knew that I had someone special on the staff. I had worked for four years in St. Petersburg, and when I told folks there I was heading to Citrus, they would invariably say, "Oh, say hi to Bob for me."

It was a bit daunting at first being the boss of someone nearly twice my age who had so many credentials, but Bob never pulled rank. It was clear, though, that he was Old School at a time when technology was taking over his profession at warp speed.

Not long after I arrived, the Times went to an electronic method of handling photo assignments. The changes were supposed to streamline the process and, of course, it came with a host of flaws.

Bob adapted to the new rules, but he never stopped using his tried-and-true system: He wrote everything he needed to know in a small notebook that he kept jammed into his back pocket. And he never gloated (at least, not too much) when the new system hiccupped and we had to ask him to get the details out of his battered notebook for us.

When Bob retired in 1992 (it's been said he never took a sick day), I felt cheated. His careers as a photographer and a party host were winding down, and I had had only a taste of both.

But the new technology, while not impossible for him to master, was a bit more than he wanted to wrestle with. "The computers, the digital cameras, they took a lot of the magic out of what he was used to doing," Thompson said. Thinking of Bob and his buddies, Behrendt said on Tuesday, "Somewhere, he and J.P. (Garner, a longtime manager at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park) are out wrestling alligators."

Actually, J.P. would be doing the wrestling. Bob would be doing what he did best, taking photos and making people smile.

_ Greg Hamilton is bureau chief of the Citrus Times, the Times edition in Citrus County.