Scott Keeler remembers the catered lunch with other newcomers at the then-St. Petersburg Times. “I remember how enthusiastic I was in the beginning,” he said. “I thought, ‘You’ve come to a special place.’ ”
He ended up staying 33 years. Thirty-three years and nine months, to be exact.
This is his last week at the now Tampa Bay Times before retiring.
By the time Keeler, 62, started working for the Times, he had already shot for three newspapers — the Elizabeth Daily Journal and the Morris County Daily Record in his native New Jersey and the Tampa Tribune.
When he joined the Times’ Pasco bureau, Keeler remembers a bustling department with 30 or 35 photographers. They covered stories across the state. “Any hurricane, we would go,” he said. He recalls a helicopter pilot on retainer to get aerial photos for breaking news. “He would pick us up in Pasco County.”
He carried his first company-issued mobile phone in a bag the size of a duffel. It had a large antenna and came from RadioShack. Calls were about $20 a minute and the reception was terrible, but Keeler thought he was “so cool. Like something out of 007,” he remembers thinking.
He was working with a more modern flip phone when he covered the infamous Florida recount for the 2000 election in Tallahassee. Editors kept calling, “Is it ready, is it ready?” The presses were holding for Keeler’s photo of a late-night press conference by former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Hundreds of journalists had waited days for the results.
After President George Bush’s victory was certified, Keeler raced to an Eckerd’s pharmacy, where he had negotiated with an employee (for $300) to keep the store open late, so they could develop his film. Keeler transmitted the image using a film negative, in time for the next day’s front page.
At the Times, Keeler transitioned from black and white film to color, then to digital. He made his mark as the go-to for state government coverage. He’s worked for five photo editors, traveled for feature stories, captured countless weather shots, the typical “editor’s request,” been dubbed “Mr. Daily” and even met his wife, Janet Keeler, in the newsroom. She was a copy desk chief and later food and travel editor. Some of his favorite assignments were working with her.
“When we traveled for the Times’ Latitudes section, he was fearless. I would wait below while he rode a helicopter to a glacier in Alaska, strapped himself into a small plane that followed California’s Highway 1 to capture the winding road or climbed to the top of a cathedral in Munich to get an overall of the Christmas market below,” Janet said in an email. “He always got the shot and made my work better, but the real winners were the readers.”
His colleagues became big fans.
“Working with [Scott] has been one of my favorite experiences at the Times,” said Tracey McManus, Clearwater and Scientology reporter. “He is an amazing journalist and such a genuine person.”
Mike Van Sickler, senior editor for politics, said Keeler “always managed to find the drama in the handshakes, backslaps, button-pushing, deal-making, demonstrating and speechifying at the Capitol.”
Chris Urso, assistant photography editor, said, “To use a bourbon reference, Scott is like taking a sip of some fine Pappy Van Winkle: sweet, spicy and a touch of burnt caramel.”
Keeler kept everyone informed, like a good journalist.
“Even after he retires, Scott will probably still have the best newsroom gossip, before anyone else,” said Colette Bancroft, book editor.
He has stories. So many stories.
A Friday football game in the late 1980s where he shot the kickoff but had to leave right after to get the photo back by deadline. “Remember, it’s film, you didn’t know what you had,” he said of that night at Pasco High School. He got two frames.
A train derailment in Zephyrhills in 2005 where boxcars full of Tropicana orange juice spilled out. “The helicopter pilot thought maybe we should go down and get some.”
Riding out Hurricane Charley’s 149 mph winds in 2004 with 30 other people, in the dark, at the Charlotte County Airport Administration building in Punta Gorda. Hurricane coverage is one aspect of the work that he says he won’t miss.
“Scott’s 38-year career as a photojournalist, particularly these three-plus decades at the Times, should be a book,” wrote Boyzell Hosey, deputy editor of photography, in announcing Keeler’s retirement. “His success came from amazing skills, incredible intellect and an affable personality. He became the ‘go-to’ in countless situations. His institutional and historical knowledge is irreplaceable, but we’ll hold on to the example and the wisdom that Scott modeled day in and day out.”
He won’t stop shooting. “I’ll never stop that,” Keeler said. He plans to buy a mirrorless camera and a couple of lenses, keep his options open for freelance work. He also plans to stay in Florida, where he’s known to enjoy peaceful evenings on his condo balcony overlooking Boca Ciega Bay, with a bourbon and a cigar, while catching a sunset, a lightning shower or fireworks.
Keeler knows he’s been fortunate in his career. “It was a beautiful thing.”