Bob Stiff, former St. Petersburg Times editor, dies at 89

Bob Stiff had a storied career, having spent over 54 years as a reporter and editor. Of those, 25 were with The Times Publishing Co.
Evening Independent Editor Bob Stiff and News Editor Bill Smith look over a copy of the newspaper in October 1971.
Evening Independent Editor Bob Stiff and News Editor Bill Smith look over a copy of the newspaper in October 1971. [ STAFF | St. Petersburg Times ]
Published Aug. 15, 2021|Updated Aug. 15, 2021

Bob Stiff, a veteran news reporter and editor who spent nearly 25 years at the St. Petersburg Times and its sister paper, the Evening Independent, died Saturday of COVID-19-related complications, his wife said. He was 89.

Mr. Stiff spent 54 years in the newspaper business, retiring from The Dispatch in North Carolina as its executive editor in 2006.

Born in Detroit in 1931, Mr. Stiff attended Ohio State University, where he was sports editor of the college newspaper.

He began working as a reporter at 21 at the Painesville Telegraph in Ohio in 1953, later becoming a bureau chief and editor.

He joined the St. Petersburg Times, which would later become the Tampa Bay Times, as a copy editor in 1961. Mr. Stiff worked his way up to assistant managing editor. In 1967, he became editor of the Evening Independent, St. Petersburg’s afternoon paper.

During his 17 years at the helm of the paper, which was owned by the Times Publishing Co., former employees say the publication was known as “the people’s paper” largely because of Mr. Stiff’s focus on local community news. The Independent was also known for its “Sunshine Offer,” a promotion that gave readers the newspaper for free following days without sunshine.

Reporters remember him as a manager with a keen eye for young talent and a competitive spirit. “More than anything, we wanted to beat the Times,” said Jon Wilson, who was a general assignment editor at the Independent.

Mr. Stiff built “a scrappy young staff,” Wilson said. “He pretty much made my career and pushed it along. He hired me twice and probably should have fired me twice, but he was a compassionate boss.”

Mr. Stiff took a chance on Bettinita Harris, who was 21 when she started as a reporter in 1979. Harris moved from Kansas to Florida without a home, friends or even a car. She said Mr. Stiff arranged for her to stay in a hotel room for her first week at the Independent and allowed her to use the company car until she could get her own.

“He gave me the chance,” said Harris, who went on to work in numerous news organizations including the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I wouldn’t be where I am now if he hadn’t given me that opportunity.”

Cindy Stiff, Mr. Stiff’s wife, said her husband believed readers needed to know about their communities. She said his columns would often leave people laughing or shaking their heads. She remembers a column he wrote predicting Jimmy Carter would be elected President before he was the Democratic nominee.

Mr. Stiff’s columns were important to who he was, said Joe Childs, a former reporter and assistant city editor for the Independent.

“His readers knew they would be rewarded with insight, whether he was engaging in commentary or just being funny,” Childs said.

Childs, who went on to enjoy a long career as a reporter and editor at the Tampa Bay Times, said of Mr. Stiff, “we had a robust daily report under his leadership. Reporters also could pursue a big story, and he would make sure they were supported.”

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Bethia Caffery, 96, was a columnist for the Independent. She called him her best friend. She said they shared a bond as columnists that others wouldn’t understand. He read everything she wrote, and she read everything he wrote.

“A lot of people find it difficult to write about their soul and their inner feelings, and Bob could,” Caffery said.

The Evening Independent closed in 1986, during a decade when many afternoon newspapers succumbed to growing competition from other media.

Mr. Stiff made the decision to leave the Independent in 1985 after declining to take an offer to work in the marketing department, Wilson said. “He was a newsman, through and though,” Wilson said.

When he left the Times Publishing Co., staff hired a plane to fly a banner over the city of St. Petersburg.

It read, “The Evening Independent Loves Bob Stiff.” It was a highly public gesture, Wilson said. It was a way to convey what Stiff meant to his Independent staff.

Mr. Stiff joined the Tallahassee Democrat and spent seven years as its executive editor. He found his way to The Dispatch in North Carolina in 1995, and spent a decade as that newspaper’s executive editor before retiring. The Dispatch reported at the time that Mr. Stiff was going to join his wife in Florida.

Cindy Stiff said her husband served on community boards and won numerous awards, including first place in 1979 for “Best Column, Humorous Subject” from the National Newspaper Association.

“They had the most amazing relationship,” daughter Kirsten Stiff-Walker, of Dunedin, said about her parents. “Anyone could see the joy between them. I grew up around a relationship everyone dreams to have.”

According to his wife, Mr. Stiff contracted the delta variant of COVID-19. She said her husband had received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine when it became available to him and was diligent about wearing masks around populated areas.

He would have celebrated his 90th birthday on Aug. 25.

On Sunday, Cindy Stiff said she received a letter that said, “I will miss the dear man whose life you were so lucky to share.” She added, “that’s how I feel. I miss him so much.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Stiff is survived by daughter Amy Stiff of St. Petersburg; son David Stiff of St. Petersburg; granddaughter, Karsen of Dunedin; grandsons Thomas and Josh; sister Nancy Gavin of North Ridgeville, Ohio; her three sons and numerous nieces and nephews.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Curlew Hills Memory Gardens of Palm Harbor and services will be at Our Lady of Lourdes in Dunedin, with times and dates yet to be arranged. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to the Xia-Gibbs Society Inc.