Past Master

Author and TV reporter Bob Kealing unearths rich but little-known gems of Orlando history.



Bob Kealing stands at the Orlando building where Gram Parsons and his band once played.

RYAN WENDLER

What do Andy Warhol, who achieved artistic immortality painting movie stars and soup cans, and Bob Kealing, author of three books about famous people and their time in Central Florida, have in common? Appreciation of the fact that today’s pop culture icons become—with the passage of time and the benefit of perspective—important historical figures. Kealing, an investigative reporter for WESH-Channel 2, feels compelled to dig up historical treasures in our quieter neighborhoods.

“I call it suburban archeology,” says Kealing. “I think people have this notion that the suburbs are sterile and lifeless; that nothing ever happened there. And they’re amazed when they find out it did.”

Kealing is on a quest to discover pre-Disney history. “All three of my books have a strong Central Florida thread,” he says. “I can show people where Gram Parsons’ family lived, over off of Lake Maitland, behind the Enzian Theater. Or where Jack Kerouac wrote some of his books. Or where Brownie Wise brought Tupperware home parties to Orlando.”

The inspiration for Kealing’s most recent book, Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock, came when Parsons’ mentee, singer/songwriter Emmylou Harris, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008. “It was kind of a line in the sand, to say, okay, you can’t deny his legacy anymore,” says Kealing. Parsons, inventor of the country/folk/blues/rock fusion he called “cosmic American music,” died in 1973, at age 26, from an overdose of morphine and alcohol.

Kealing has selected those who fall from grace as the subjects of his books and—in the case of Parsons and Kerouac—ones who died too young after years of heavy drinking and drug use. But he finds that their legacies more than make up for their faults. He writes unsparingly about the ugly side of addiction, as he feels it’s important not to glamorize that aspect of their lives, but there is a motif of redemption through creative work. With Wise, he traces her ascension from battered wife to business maven at a time when women were often not allowed to work outside the home, much less in the boardroom, and then recounts how she was unceremoniously dumped after helping to build the Tupperware empire.

With his clean-cut looks and mild-mannered voice, it’s easy to see why people open up their homes to share their photographs and memories with Kealing, 48. Still, his books contain surprises that only tenacity on his part, and an uncommon level of forthrightness by the families and friends, could uncover. Being in Central Florida living rooms via the nightly news (where he has been the primary WESH reporter on the Casey Anthony story for the past three years) definitely helps Kealing with access, but it doesn’t end there.

“I think it really begins and ends with trust. It’s letting primary sources in a story know that I want to take a little bit different angle, because in all of these books, I found that there is a significant portion that is untold,’’ he says. “Or there is a different perspective to be had. A lot of times that has to do with Florida and with the South. I think that people who still live in the suburbs, folks who were friends or neighbors, have their own take, because they’re seeing this guy, whether it’s Gram Parsons or Jack Kerouac, as a real person.’’

Kealing is excited about opportunities for commemoration. “What today may be considered pop culture; tomorrow is considered history,” he says. The house in College Park where Kerouac once lived and wrote is now on Orlando’s historic register, and was nominated in November by the Florida State Board of Historic Preservation to the National Register of Historic Places. (Kealing was the first person to research Kerouac’s Orlando connection extensively, and the first to locate the house at the corner of Shady Lane and Clouser Avenue, and write about its significance in Kerouac’s career.) Brownie Wise may someday have a statue in Kissimmee. Winter Haven is considering historic preservation of a ramshackle building downtown that used to be a teen club, run by Parsons’ parents, on what Kealing calls The Youth Center Circuit.

“These youth centers were all over the map, and featured acts like the Allman Brothers, back when they were the Escorts,’’ Kealing says. “Little Tommy Petty and the Sundowners, and Gram Parsons and the Legends played at the Orlando Youth Center, which is still standing. That’s a wonderful part of Central Florida’s musical legacy that has barely been talked about at all.”

Leaving a legacy for the youth of Orlando is a personal mission for Kealing; as a father to William, 12, and Kristen, 10, he has some pre-teens of his own to share his passion for music and writing with. Kealing says his wife, Karen, understands that writing is not a choice for him; it’s like breathing. It also helps that she has her own passion: baking cakes that are both works of art and taste sensations, for a select clientele.

In addition to attending William’s Boy Scout campouts and Kristen’s Pop Warner cheerleading events, Kealing involves them in his research, like the recent road trip they took to visit locations from the film Follow That Dream for a book on Elvis Presley’s time in Florida.

Kealing has had to become a master of time management to get it all done. He spends years on each book; it’s not like his job at WESH, with its tight deadlines.

“It just takes time,” he says. “On the day shift, I’ve got an hour after Karen and the kids leave before I drive to work, and that’s prime writing time. Then [at night], once everybody’s off to bed, I’m back in my office doing research or transcribing stuff. It’s fun to do it incrementally. It’s a good example to the kids of working hard, having a goal.”

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