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Riordan Remembered

Colleagues remember Patrick Riordan as many things – an aggressive journalist, a talented speech writer, a dedicated teacher and a beloved friend.

And friends said he always did it with a smile – his trademarked infectious yet charming grin.

At a memorial service at St. John’s Episcopal Parish in Tampa for Riordan Tuesday, friends and relatives gathered to share memories of the adjunct history professor and former special assistant to then-President Betty Castor. Riordan died Friday at age 55 after a long battle with lung cancer.

Friends from different phases in Riordan’s life spoke during the memorial about the man they characterized as warm, funny and friendly even in the face of his own impending mortality.

“He tried mightily to prepare us for today,” said Laurey Stryker, vice president for Budgets and Human Resources, to about 200 friends and relatives at the memorial service. “He always kept us well informed about his treatments. He asked for prayers from whatever higher force we believe in.”

Stryker met Riordan when he worked for State University System Chancellor Charlie Reed, and she for Castor, then-Commissioner of Education. Stryker said she had learned a lot from Riordan, and she put his experience to use every day.

“I could talk for a long time, but I’ve been on the receiving end of Pat’s slashing pen,” she said to a crowd of chuckles.

Riordan’s keen editing eye came from his years as an investigative reporter working for various newspapers, primarily the Miami Herald. Tom Howard, a childhood friend, remembered Riordan’s early interest in journalism, working at their high school paper in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

“I became editor my senior year,” Howard said. “But Pat took a different path. He was already working for the town’s paper.”

Bob Shaw, a friend former colleague at the Miami Herald, spoke of Riordan’s dedication to journalism, and his aggressive approach to investigative reporting.

“I’ll always think of Pat as a reporter – a damned good one,” Shaw said. “His favorite word was ‘scumbag.'”

Shaw talked about a story Riordan had worked on about declining tourism in Miami Beach. The government’s published tourism statistics indicated that tourism was up. But Riordan wasn’t convinced. And when asked, government officials were denying any decline in tourism.

“We were standing there asking how we can prove it,” Shaw said, shaking his arm in an up and down motion like Riordan had done while thinking out loud. He said the shaking motion reminded Riordan of flushing a toilet.

“That’s it, toilet water,” Shaw said.

“He tracked water consumption for years. Sure enough, water consumption was steadily declining. So must be tourism.”

Shaw also discussed a series of stories Riordan had worked on about reports of alleged police brutality in Miami.

“One of Pat’s great skills was the use of public records, he wrote a book on the subject,” Shaw said. “Every time a police officer uses a weapon, be it a gun or nightstick or – the weapon of choice – the flashlight, he has to file a report. The idea was to create a database of these reports. But computers were new. Our newsroom probably had two. But Pat set up the database.

“Then we defined standards, we had to have eyewitness corroboration. Pat had to go out into some bad neighborhoods. But we all know Pat’s smile, that infectious laugh. He got them to talk (about the police brutality) and sign affidavits.”

Shaw said the result of Riordan’s work was a series called The Dirty Dozen – stories about 12 cops who constantly used excessive force.

“In one case, a cop had hit someone so hard his eye was knocked out,” Shaw said. “So everyone knew who these cops were.”

Riordan’s series didn’t get all of the offending officers fired, but it did have a real effect on police brutality in Miami.

“Four or five years later when they did the same type of investigation, they found that brutality had actually gone way down,” Shaw said.

Howard spoke of his passions for both journalism and politics in Riordan’s early life which he focused on throughout.

“I was a little disappointed with Pat when he quit his job at the Miami Herald when he got a job as speech writer for the governor,” Howard said. “I soon learned that it was a piece in a very colored life.”

But Riordan brought professionalism and direction to every endeavor in his life, according to Howard.

“Pat and I were called for service in Vietnam,” Howard said. “Pat declared himself a conscientious objector, and was sentenced to community service. He led an anti-drug group. But he would not tell the kids not to smoke pot and then come home and do it himself, much to my dismay.”

According to Stryker, Riordan’s dedication helped him excel while serving leaders like Gov. Bob Graham, Reed and Castor.

But more than a speech writer or an assistant, he lent his advice, spoke up when needed and at times championed his own causes.

“He shaped public policy in Florida by being beside these leaders, by asking the tough questions,” Stryker said. “He made the public case for four-year degrees at (the) St. Petersburg (campus). He muscled USF into the Research I tier in Florida. And who can forget Pat’s discovery of the satellite image of Florida with the bright red strip across the middle of the state – the I-4 Corridor. How he used to show it off.”

As Castor’s assistant, Riordan had heavily promoted the I-4 Corridor Project, the symbiotic economic and research partnerships between USF and high-technology companies in the surrounding area.

Riordan worked at the Herald as a reporter, state capitol bureau chief and a Washington correspondent until becoming Graham’s speech writer in 1983. Two years later, he became head of public information for the chancellor’s office. He then took two years to study Native-American history in 1995. In 1997 Castor asked Riordan to come to USF to serve as her special assistant, and offered him a teaching opportunity as a history professor. When Castor left last year, he became director of the Florida Center for History and Politics.

Dr. Jack Ruckdeschel, director for the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Research Center and Riordan’s physician, said he was always impressed by the man’s ability to intellectually study his disease, while at the same time be treated for it, and continue a full work load in the face of it all.

“There are very few people who can do the type of intellectual juggling he did,” Ruckdeschel said. “Most people are overwhelmed with the disease. But he was an insightful observer of it, almost as if he was observing himself over his shoulder. He could observe what he thought about his life, he could deal with it on an intellectual level. It’s very rare in my situation to see someone go from intellectualizing about their disease and then going back in for treatment.”

Given Riordan’s interest in journalism and politics, and the pair’s relatively important positions in Florida, Ruckdeschel said the two often shared laughs about what was going on in state government.

“We’re both heavily involved in the university, and he was an irreverent observer of the role of state government at every level in the process of higher education,” he said. “I don’t want to get him posthumously in trouble, but he wasn’t always in agreement at the decisions made at multiple levels. So we would laugh at some of the issues.”

Riordan regularly sent e-mails to friends concerning the status of his cancer, and would keep everyone updated of the latest developments.

“Every time something changed, good or bad, he had a mailing list he sent to present and past presidents of the university, doctors, politicians, etc.,” Ruckdeschel said. “He would say, ‘This is what’s happening.'”

Ruckdeschel said Riordan’s death hit him especially hard since the two had grown to be friends during the cancer treatments in the past few years.

“When I do clinical work, all I do is lung cancer,” he said. “Ultimately, 80 to 85 percent of my patients die. After 25 years of that, I have to keep a little distance. But there are some people who break through that. It was particularly sad. I lost a friend.”