In memory of Bob Ardren,
a champion of the circus in Sarasota
Columnist was 'a real Sarasota guy'
SARASOTA - When Bob Ardren moved from Iowa to Sarasota in 1976, he came searching for sun and
a little more time for scuba diving.
Ardren, who died just after midnight on New Year's Day, found a lot more in his adopted hometown.
As a widely published journalist and a fixture on the downtown scene for three decades,
Ardren found the perfect setting for good stories in a changing Sarasota.
He was best known for his Main Street Beat column in the Pelican Press, covering new
restaurants opening downtown, neighborhood spats, City Hall controversies and any other
happenings he picked up through the grape vine.
Ardren, 67, lived for more than 20 years in a ramshackle frame house on Second Street that was
a well-known gathering place for writers, artists, politicians and the everyday citizens he
met through his work, or from his familiar spot at a sidewalk table downtown.
"Bob was a real Sarasota guy," said sculptor Dennis Kowal. "He didn't have to try. He just was."
He was a man of wide and varied experience.
For a 16-year stint before he started his Main Street column, he worked at the John and Mable
Ringling Museum of Art as a public relations director and eventually became the head of
its Circus Museum.
"No matter where we went, any restaurant or bar, the beach, anywhere in Sarasota, wherever
Bob Ardren showed up there was someone who knew him there," said Cathy Ciccolella, a
journalist herself, and Ardren's companion for 24 years.
"He could talk to anyone anywhere," said Tracy Ardren, an anthropologist who lives in
Miami, of her father.
When the two of them traveled together to eastern Europe in 1991, Ardren chose not to make
advance reservations; plans, he said, were for "wusses."
On a train in Prague, he told a stranger of his Czech ancestry, and the man was so engaged
by Ardren's open and ebullient nature that he gave father and daughter a place to stay
during their visit.
Ardren took a similarly informal approach to his Main Street column.
"He would hear something and say 'Oh that's interesting,' and scribble notes in the margin
of the newspaper," said former Sarasota Mayor Mary Anne Servian, one of the regulars among
the circle of friends and news sources who joined Ardren every Saturday at a table
outside Pastry Art café in downtown Sarasota.
In addition to his downtown column and news coverage, Ardren wrote of his passion for
boating and fishing in another column for the Pelican, "Sarasota Waters."
"His readers connected with him on a personal level which, in my opinion, added strength
and integrity to his journalism," said longtime friend, freelance journalist and book
author Stan Zimmerman.
"He had earned their confidence and trust not only in an analytic way, but also in an
At well over 6 feet tall, with a mane of white hair that in recent months fell victim to
cancer therapy, Ardren was a man of large appetite and girth to match.
He loved food, conversation, ethnic restaurants and a cold beer or two at the end of the day.
For years, Ardren met every Friday afternoon for beers at O'Leary's on Sarasota Bay with
fellow Pelican reporter and former Sarasota County Commissioner Jack Gurney and Paul Roat,
a writer for the Anna Maria Islander. "Choir practice," they called it.
When the weather turned cold or rainy, the three men would repair to Ardren's nearby house,
a wood frame structure on Second Street where the door was always open to droppers-by and
the neighborhood's stray cats.
The house was not air-conditioned, an Old Florida mode of living that Ardren preferred.
His remedy for high summer's dog days: "Crank up the fans, take off your clothes and don't
move too fast."
Ardren lived in the house for 20 years, until selling it at the height of the recent Sarasota
land boom. The windfall bought Ardren a sedate-looking gray BMW that was a departure from
his usual enormous vehicles that had seen better days.
Ardren's style of dress, however, changed little with his prosperity. As recently as last
spring, he was on the job at City Hall, covering his beat in shorts and flip-flops.
Gurney covered Sarasota County for the Pelican at the same time Ardren became the weekly's
City Hall correspondent.
"My best friend was also the guy I worked with," Gurney said. "It's a huge hole. I don't
see how I can ever fill that hole."
Survivors also include a son, "Joe" Eugene Ardren of Sarasota; a sister, Betty Hille, of
Norfolk, Neb.; a brother, William, of Treasure Island, and four grandchildren.
No formal funeral service is planned. Instead, a celebration of Ardren's life will be held
in Sarasota at a date and place to be announced.
In lieu of flowers, Ardren's loved ones request that donations be made to The Pines of
Sarasota, Sarasota, FL 34236, or TideWell Hospice and Palliative Care, 5955 Rand Blvd.,
Sarasota, FL 34238.
Staff writer Mark Zaloudek contributed to this story.