Two weeks after a lone gunman blasted into the offices of the Capital Gazette newspapers and fatally shot five, their colleagues gathered at the Loews Annapolis hotel Thursday, fought back tears and honored Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith.
They did it the way good journalists do: by telling stories of their coworkers’ lives and labors and how each endowed the other with meaning.
“The term ‘assault on a newsroom’ shocked a nation, but the names of the victims shocked us,” said Rick Hutzell, editor of the newspapers, before listing the names of the fallen men and women he called close friends: Hiaasen, 59, an editor and columnist; Winters, 65, a community correspondent who led special publications; Fischman, 61, the editorial page editor; McNamara, 56, a longtime editor and sports writer; and Smith, 34, a sales assistant who had been on the job for seven months.
“I have avoided interviews because, as you can tell, this makes me very emotional,” said Hutzell, his voice cracking.
Sponsored by the Baltimore Sun Media Group, which owns the Capital Gazette, the private memorial service drew about 300 mourners, most of them journalists.
Gov. Larry Hogan, Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh and Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley also attended, along with numerous members of local fire and police departments, first responders who were singled out for their “life-saving” efforts as the tragedy unfolded on June 28.
One theme repeatedly emerged: the irony that the victims were slain doing what they did best — working on stories that a community depends on — and now their surviving colleagues had to find the right language to elicit meaning from nearly unfathomable events.
They did it as journalists do — by describing those small details that bring stories, and people, to life.
Hutzell spoke of Fischman, his colleague for 26 years and “the quietest friend I ever had” — a seemingly solitary man who tended to walk through the newsroom with his head down, yet once stunned co-workers by announcing that he had married a Mongolian opera singer.
His skill at “telling the hard truths” about the community where he lived made him an excellent candidate for a bigger paper, but Fischman never wanted to leave Annapolis.
Capital Gazette reporter Danielle Ohl said she felt less qualified than many in the audience to eulogize Hiaasen, who mentored her as a writer and thinker. Yet she brought to life the generosity, curiosity and colorful storytelling philosophy of the 6-foot, 5-inch editor many affectionately called “Big Rob.”
“He had that rare gift of making everyone he talked with feel special,” she said.
She told of telling Hiaasen about an article she once wrote about a baby giraffe at the Maryland Zoo. He asked why she thought it was a good story and she started describing “plasma transfusions.”
“No, no,” she recalled him saying. “I don’t mean ‘Why is it newsworthy’? I mean, ‘What makes it connect with readers’?”
Capital Gazette sports editor Dave Broughton chose to describe McNamara, his friend and co-worker of 24 years, as a player during staff pickup basketball games.
“John McNamara the basketball player was like John McNamara the man,” Broughton said. “He had sound fundamentals, he was hard-working, he was competitive, and he was a great teammate.”
Capital Gazette advertising manager Marty Padden hired Smith, whom he described as a cheerful “public face of the company.” She handled reader requests with care and aplomb and spoke often in the workplace of her love for her two dogs, her fiancé and her family.
Photographer Joshua McKerrow recalled his first meeting with Winters: He showed up to cover an event, camera in hand, only to find Winters — “tall, thin, with the reddest hair” — already there taking pictures. Winters was a freelance reporter at the time, and McKerrow said she believed that by offering photos with her stories she’d earn more money and make a better impression.
She was so persistent — and so good — as a community journalist that the Capital Gazette “had no choice but to hire her,” he said.
“There’s a Wendi-sized hole in all of our lives,” he said. “I’m angry. I’m afraid. I’m really tired. I’m worried things are going to get worse before they get better.” But he added that Winters’ legacy of persistence gave him hope.
Speaking last, Trif Alatzas, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Baltimore Sun Media Group, said the event still feels like a bad dream.
He thanked surviving members of the Capital Gazette staff, who didn’t just put out a paper the day after the shooting but have continued to honor their fallen colleagues by telling Annapolis’ stories each day ever since.
That, he said, is what Gerald, Rob, John, Rebecca and Wendi would have wanted.
The tragedy “won’t stop us from carrying on our mission,” he said. “Their mission is our mission.”