TAMPA — Larry Elliston's first job in TV news was like a dream come true: Words, pictures and storytelling were passions that traced to his childhood.
But one of the first stories he told as a television reporter was about a fatal airplane crash, and he hated telling it. Blood, guts and gore — none of it was for him.
"The kind of stuff the assignment editors liked was the gory, front-page sort of stories," he said in an interview with former colleague Tony Zappone. "But I realized early on that if there was a front page, there also had to be a back page just as important, and that's where I wanted my part of TV to be."
Now, friends and family are left with memories of the man who made a career of showing off some of Florida's most unusual slices of life.
A Tampa Bay-area native, Mr. Elliston died Thursday. He was 66.
Straight out of the University of South Florida in the 1970s, he landed a job working at WFLA-Ch. 8, before moving to WTVT-Ch. 13 five years later.
Mr. Elliston, a fifth-generation Floridian, had a passion for the Sunshine State, so he started doing TV specials about all things Florida.
"He did a number of those stories, and it was really his initial expertise," said his wife of 24 years, Joyanne Elliston. "He knew a lot about the state that other people didn't know, but he would still go and search out things that were unique even beyond the things he already knew."
Mr. Elliston's Florida segments became a regular WTVT special called Assignment Florida, which evolved into Down Home Florida. He persuaded editors to let him set out on the road in search of the stories nobody else had thought to tell.
"He was an expert at the unusual," said Kathryn Elliston Kelly, his only sibling and younger sister.
The stories were never planned, and Mr. Elliston never had a set destination in mind. Topics ranged from the world's smallest police station in Carrabelle to a remote, Old Florida fresh-squeezed orange juice stand in Sumterville.
"Whatever it was, he could absolutely describe it to perfection," his sister said. "He had a gift, and I can't imagine him doing anything else other than what he did."
Mr. Elliston's television idol was Charles Kuralt, known for his On the Road segments, and later as an anchor. Elliston wound up interviewing Kuralt and, eventually, the features he made for WTVT aired alongside Kuralt's pieces on CBS newscasts.
Mr. Elliston spent years on WTVT's special projects team before financial constraints put him back into general assignment reporting — something that never made him happy. He soon found a way to keep telling the stories he wanted. He produced 300 film essays is a series he called Something Else, which ran for two years and won an Emmy Award.
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After more than 1,000 stories throughout much of rural Florida, Mr. Elliston decided to leave WTVT in 1992. He got married. A couple of years later, he started on his next adventure: traveling the world with Jack Hanna as a producer for Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures.
Zappone recalled a time Hanna showed up to Mr. Elliston's 50th birthday party with animals — including a baby tiger — in tow. When the animals started making a mess by doing "their business," they had to go, according to Zappone.
"It was one of the most unusual parties," he said. "But that was Larry."
Colleen Hamilton, a former WTVT executive producer who worked closely with Mr. Elliston, said even with such talent, the reporter always remained humble.
"He was friends with everyone, and once you were his friend, you were his friend forever," she said.
Hamilton was responsible for the 6 o'clock newscast that closed with Mr. Elliston's Florida stories, pieces of work she called "beautiful and valuable and a breath of fresh air" following the program's harder news stories.
"After we had hammered the audience … we would cut them a break, give them a reason to have hope, and play (Mr. Elliston's) story," she said. "It was a beautiful way to end a newscast."
Time staff writer Sara DiNatale contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.