Stripping for tuition, the Jerry Seinfeld interview, hiding from a serial killer, chasing spot news from the scanner, that bench clearing fracas. If you worked at The Independent Florida Alligator in the 1980s or 1990s, you know all about these memories.
In a time of shoulder pads and bi-level hairdos, some of the most competitive and inspired student journalists attending the University of Florida and Santa Fe College turned to The Alligator for hands-on experience which gave them the much needed clips to springboard into the big leagues.
On July 11th, a coordinated effort by former Photo Editor (1988-1991) Reggie Grant and former Editor (1987-1990) Mary Shedden started with an invite, then a survey and culminated with an hour and a half long Zoom meeting that reunited 30 former staffers.
One by one, faces popped up on the Zoom call with smiles and waves hello all around. After a roll call where staffers said their name and years they worked at the largest student run newspaper in the U.S., former Editor Shedden, who is now the news director at WUSF Public Media in Tampa, lead the meeting by asking questions.
In another square on the screen was Shedden’s husband Sam Dolson, sports editor, (1982-1984 and 1988-1991) and another square was shared by Crime Reporter and News Editor Dan Evans (1988-1991) and his wife Editor Judy Plunkett (1988-1991). And even though they didn’t work together at The Alligator, Dan Wine (1989-1991) and his husband Liam Miller (1987-1988) shared a square during the “Zoomunion.”
Along with marriages, many Alligator staffers developed lifelong friendships and professional connections and have stayed in touch via Facebook.
Shedden read off some of the results of a survey that 32 former staffers filled out online. Of those 32, Shedden said 19 were still in journalism. Some were in advertising and public relations. There were five educators, content writers, one in private banking, another working at a library.
“Somebody is retired,” Shedden announced. “And that is just not fair.”
Everyone laughed at the one liners, witty comebacks and inside jokes that continued to roll throughout the meet up.
The question from Shedden: What was your biggest memory from your time at The Alligator? drew silly and serious answers with Shedden noting that the biggest memories were not even based in the newsroom, they were from Farah’s cafe across the street where the staffers would join up to decompress about life as students working their way through college. “It really was a newsroom,” Shedden said about Farah’s.
Former Photo Editor Grant put together a slideshow with photos and video and the crew watched while commenting throughout.
“(Michael) Koretzky hasn’t changed his hairstyle in 30 years,” said one viewer. “That was the trip to Houston, mullet, oh Frosted Memories The Alligator prom,” said others as images more than 30 years old popped up on the screen.
At the end of the slideshow Shedden declared that after reading the surveys there were a lot of former staffers who “have had a lot of fun with life.”
Technical difficulties prompted a comment, “Can somebody get their kids to help us with this please?” and the crew laughed together.
When asked about surprises staffers encountered in their careers, Shedden was first to respond that working in public media was never something she planned on, others answered about adopting kids, changing careers and how fast the internet upturned journalism.
The Alligator first went online back in 1994 as the industry was learning about the world wide web. An office was set up on the second floor of The Alligator building where the online effort was launched. That location, just a few blocks from campus, was purchased by Campus Communications in 1990 but was sold in 2016 to a developer who razed it.
Before the building was torn down, though, former staffers returned to meet up and say goodbye to the darkroom and newsroom one last time.
Throughout the Zoom reunion, former staffers shared yellowed clips they saved and illustrations, page layouts and photos.
Illustrator Steve Pica held up Applause fronts that he illustrated. The entertainment section covered the local art and music scenes.
Shedden asked, “What story or photo do you think about the most?”
Photographer Grant gave Shedden a thumbs up when she brought up her story about students who were stripping their way through school. Grant accompanied her and captured the art to go with her article.
Former Editor Michael Koretzky (1983-1989) brought up the story that Joe Newman and Greg Saitz did on which bars in Gainesville were letting underage people in.
That time Phil Davis posed as the devil for the Applause Magazine front was another favorite.
And on the crime beat, Evans brought up Photo Editor Gene Page’s flashing blue light and how they would hear spot news on the scanner and chase it down.
Former Applause Editor Denise Reagan (1987-1990) talked about her interview with Paula Poundstone who performed at Gator Growl. “We talked for more than a hour,” she said about the interview that was supposed to last 20 minutes. “I got a call from her manager,” who Reagan said was “pissed off.”
Former Editor Sonja Isger shared a scare remembering that an SGA (student government) guy came to her office and yelled at her. “Gene Page (photo editor) came in and asked ‘Everything cool here?.’ ” That’s when she felt safe that nothing bad was going to happen.
Evans remembered covering the first of what turned out to be five murders in 1990 by convicted killer Danny Rolling and thinking that the editor was playing it too big on the front. He had hoped that the murder was a onetime crime but that ended up becoming one of the scariest times to be a student at UF.
“I was not convinced at first it was a serial killer,” Evans said. “And didn’t want to overplay it. I couldn’t imagine what was about to unfold.”
‘We were like family’ was the consensus by the former staffers. They remembered sitting at Farah’s celebrating the new student edition coming off the presses when the news of the first murder came.
Former Staffer Donya Currie (1988-1990) said she was recently interviewed about those murders and what Gainesville students and residents experienced during that time.
Former Sport Editor Cesar Brioso (1985-1989) remembered going over to Former Editor and production guru Kathy Rohrbach’s (1985-1990) home along with Grant and Page to sweep the house to make sure it was safe.
Grant remembered students buying bats and guns at the time and said, “It was a crazy time to be a student in Gainesville.”
When the state’s attorney released the murders investigation files, The Alligator staff set up a database of those files and journalists from around the state were using the resource at the time.
The Alligator released an Extra Edition when Rolling was found guilty and passed it around campus.
Things lightened up after that topic and the former staffers agreed on who was the scariest to work with and which editors made them cry as they came down hard on them for fact errors and mistakes.
Even Koretzky said he was scared of paste up artist extraordinaire Rohrbach who worked in the backshop. “They read everything,” he said and joked that she always had a (paste up) knife in her hand.
They remembered mistakes and accomplishments, Hearst awards, Pulitzers and the Alligator fantasy baseball league that started in 1989 (ABL) and still lives on.
Tampa Bay Times Reporter Sharon Wynne (1985-1988) said, “I feel like I learned the most about journalism at The Alligator.”
Former Photo Editor Adrian Dennis (1989-1990) joined the meeting from his home in England. Shedden commented that she was thrilled to see some of Dennis’ sports photography work in an art museum exhibit in South Florida. Dennis asked the question of the former staffers. “Did we live in Gainesville in the best time?”
And that’s when the crew agreed that it would be important to “keep the conversation going” by hosting more reunion events.
On the Zoomunion were: Reggie Grant 1988-1991, Mary Shedden 1987-1990, Sharon Wynne 1985-1988, Lucy Chabot 1987-1990, Denise Reagan 1987-1990, Dan Evans 1988-1991, Judy Plunkett 1988-1991, Suzette Cook 1988-1990, Don Levan 1990-1992, Sam Dolson 1982-1984 and 1988-1991, Jon Glass 1990-1994, Greg Saitz 1988-1990, Kathy Rohrbach 1985-1990, Ira Schoffel 1991-1994, Donya Curry 1988-1990, Cesar Brioso 1985-1989, Dan Wine 1989-1991, Liam Miller 1987-1988, Kendra Brown 1987-1989, Steve Pica 1984-1988, Michael Koretzky 1983-1989, Jared Lazarus 1991-1993, Sonja Isger 1985-1989, Laura Brigham 1988-1990, Adrian Dennis 1989-1990, Scott Noll 1990-1991, “Doc” M.D. Cumella 1989-1993, Steve “Chili Con” Carney 1987-1989, Susan Shoaff, Shawn Sullivan and Lawrence Hollyfield.”