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August 17, 2018
Florida 'Icon' Jeff Klinkenberg

Photo: Cheri Diez/Tama Bay Times

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Florida 'Icon' Jeff Klinkenberg

Journalist, author, St. Petersburg; age 68

Art Levy | 5/29/2018

By the time I was in high school, I joke I was the founder of the Boys Without Dates Club. I was certainly interested in girls, but perhaps it was the smell of fish on my hands from all the time I spent fishing. We would catch snakes, too, and then you’d have the smell of snake musk on your hands, as well.

I can use Florida as a prism to write about anything.

"Writers are famous for not having confidence. The confidence wasn't always in the writing, but it was in the material. I just feared I didn't have the skill to pull things off." ~Jeff Klinkenberg

In 1951, my parents moved from Chicago to Miami. Like a lot of Floridians, they wanted to make a new start.

This year, I won the Florida Humanities Council’s Florida Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing. That was a huge honor. Previous winners include Carl Hiaasen and Patrick Smith, who wrote ‘A Land Remembered,’ which is the bible to a lot of Floridians. There are so many great writers in Florida.

I wanted to tell somebody’s story as well as it could be told.

The first part of my career, I was a certified workaholic. I went to see a shrink for it. I had to get better at saying no to myself.

When I graduated from the University of Florida, I came back to Miami and was a sports writer for the Miami News, which was an afternoon paper that is no more. It was great place to be a young journalist. It was already starting to fail, but there were lots of talented people there, and it had a touch of the Front Page era, so I witnessed fistfights and drunkenness and gambling in the newsroom.

I can still find things that excite me. If I see a snake, I’m a happy boy.

My parents were not educated people, so there weren’t a lot of books in the house, for example, but they were newspaper readers. Back then in Miami, there were two daily newspapers and community newspapers. They were always reading, so I valued newspapers.

My mother had many of the virtues and the vices of the Irish. One of the virtues was, man, she had a gift for gab — like I do.

I’ve been in a number of hurricanes, including a couple of big ones when I was a kid. Of course, I went down to Miami after Andrew. I know what a Category 4 or 5 can do, and I don’t want to be there for that. A Category 4 or 5 is just beyond belief.

John McPhee was a great influence on me.

I’m a crazed cyclist. Yesterday, I did 43 miles. Today, I did 25. I usually do about 100 miles a week. I’m not fast. I’m a tortoise, but I seem to have endurance.

When I was growing up, I was a crazed Florida boy who was fishing and doing all that outdoors stuff. I went to parochial school — parochial school during the boxing nun era — and I couldn’t pay attention. I used to joke that I invented the rope-a-dope. I wasn’t a bad kid. I was just looking out the window, wishing I was someplace else.

In retrospect, my childhood was magical. I grew up like Huck Finn.

I’m really appalled by this narrative of weird Florida. Some of the ‘Florida Man’ stuff and the ‘Weird Florida’ stuff — some of it I have to admit I laugh at — but a lot of it after a while strikes me like dumb blonde jokes or Polish jokes or whatever. It just seems like it’s cruel stereotyping.

My dad had been a competitive swimmer in high school, and he liked to do these long open swims on the beach, and when I was old enough — I had a little mask and snorkel — and I’d hang onto his trunks and he’d swim along the beach. The Atlantic is much more clear than the Gulf, and it was like looking down into an aquarium.

I was looking for stories that just seemed authentic. I wasn’t going to write necessarily about Disney World. I knew out there, away from the interstates, there were these things that were happening that you might not see anywhere but in Florida — the critters, the woods, the food, the art, the music. When I started to write those stories, I was like a blind dog in a smokehouse. Wherever I snapped, there was something meaty that I could write about that, most likely, nobody had written about before.

We drove around, and we saw our first swallowtail kite of the year — they’re coming up from South America — and so I knew it was spring.

I started reading because I was interested in fishing. I started reading Vic Dunaway in the Miami Herald. He was the outdoors editor. I remember reading him as a kid and thinking, ‘My God, that has to be the best job in the whole world.’

I like people. I really feel I can talk to people.

Key lime pie is the Florida pie.

I write down inspiring quotes, and I have one from Zora Neale Hurston. She was talking about folklore, and she said folklore is the boiled down juice of human living. That’s what’s sort of disappearing from journalism today — the boiled down juice of what it’s like to be alive.

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