Rob Hiaasen once wrote a description of his ideal job: “I would like to be paid for the occasional amusing remark or for simply showing up promptly to work and bringing in cookies from time to time,” he wrote a colleague. “Alas, there's no market for those outstanding qualities.”
But he was wrong. His wryly observant writing style and his generous mentoring of young journalists assured him of roles in several newsrooms, from The Baltimore Sun to, most recently, the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, where he was one of five staff members shot to death Thursday.
Hiaasen, 59, celebrated his 33rd wedding anniversary last week with Maria Hiaasen, a former journalist who teaches English at Dulaney High School. Thursday was her 58th birthday.
The couple married after a whirlwind courtship five months after their first date. The Timonium man became known as “Big Rob” during the high school years of their children, Ben, 29, an attorney in Towson; Samantha, 27, an assistant manager of the Barnes & Noble at the Inner Harbor; and Hannah, 26, an artist who works at a furnishings store in New York, Maria Hiaasen said.
“He was a tall man, 6-foot-5, but he was a giant not just in stature but in character,” she said. “He was just the best husband.”
“He loves words, he loves humor,” she said. “He loved journalism, he loved helping those young writers at the Gazette.”
A native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Hiaasen joined The Baltimore Sun as a features writer in 1993. He joined the Capital as an assistant editor in 2010 and wrote a column on Sundays.
As a writer, he was drawn to quirky stories, and had a unique way of telling them, with wry asides and internal and imagined dialogues.
In a recent column, he listed the 10 best songs about rain. “Feel free to disagree,” he wrote. “Feel free to be wrong. (Yes, we're cranky. Aren't you in all this slop?)”
The list included “Fire and Rain,” of course. Hiaasen was known for his love of James Taylor. He would tell a story about nearly hyperventilating during an interview with the singer-songwriter.
But he had a serious side as well, and earlier this year the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Press Association awarded him first place in a feature column category for a piece about realizing only as a grownup that the Fort Lauderdale beach at which he spent many a happy childhood day was segregated. “Is there a statute of limitations on childhood naivete? On adult un-education?” Hiaasen asked. He went on to detail “wade-in” protests staged by the NAACP and, in other towns, the firebombing of the home of civil rights activists, lynching and other violence — none of which he knew about as he was growing up.
“Little did I know,” he concluded, sadly.
Current and former co-workers remembered him as a lanky, endearingly goofy storyteller, committed to both the reporting and narrative writing ends of his profession.
“He could be deadly serious about doing investigative reporting, but he also had a soft side,” said Tom Marquardt, former editor and publisher of the Capital Gazette. “He had a special insight into people’s lives and their character.
“What Rob really brought to the game was his great writing ability and sense of humor.”
Marquardt said Hiaasen was hired to add a more human dimension to news coverage, and indeed he became known for stories about people and community life. As someone who lived a “multi-faceted life,” Hiaasen was particularly helpful to less experienced journalists.
“He was a great mentor to younger reporters,” he said.
Tina Reed, a former Capital reporter, was one of those reporters.
“He was a philosopher and a poet,” said Reed, 33. “He was a coach, and he was a mentor. He wanted to teach young journalists to be better.”
Reed, who now works at FierceHealthcare, an industry publication, remembers how Hiaasen shepherded “Saving Melissa,” a narrative series she wrote in 2013 about a young cancer patient who became paralyzed and fought to regain mobility.
As with many reporters on small newspapers, she didn’t think she had the time to spend on such an ambitious project, but Hiaasen pressed and encouraged her.
“He championed and pushed me on. He just really believed in the story. He kicked it back to me many times,” she said. “He just kept pushing for the humanity of the story.”
It was a sensibility he brought to his own writing. Even when he wrote humorously, it was with gentleness more than snark. He connected with his subjects, especially the downtrodden, and told their stories with immense empathy.
He wrote extensively about Kirk Bloodworth, the Eastern Shore man who was wrongly convicted of murdering a 9-year-old girl and became the first death row inmate in the United States to be exonerated by DNA evidence.
“Life after the death penalty has been traumatic for Bloodsworth, who will turn 40 on Halloween,” Hiaasen wrote in July 2000. “His seven years of freedom have been streaked with bouts of drinking, job failures and humiliations, romantic disappointments, depression and festering self-doubt.
“Will this be my only legacy, he wonders, to be known forever as the burly, red-headed guy from the Eastern Shore who wasn't a child killer after all?
“It's a long way back from the place he was and who he was: a dead man walking.
“It's a long way home.”
He loved to prowl Fells Point in search of oddball stories, such as the “privy hunter” who scoured the waterfront for 19th-century artifacts, or the saga of a shipwrecked houseboat that was finally towed away after two unsightly years, only for another equally disabled boat to mysteriously turn up on a nearby piling.
He wrote about the passing of a homeless man in the neighborhood. The man would rant incoherently and scare the tourists, but after his death, residents and business owners made sure he had a proper burial.
“He was both a tender-hearted features writer and a jaded journalist,” said former Sun columnist Susan Reimer, who lives in Annapolis. “He absolutely saw it all, and with a very clear eye.”
Friends were surprised that someone who loved to write as much as Hiaasen turned to editing. But it turned out he had a gift of working with new reporters and drawing them into the profession he loved.
“He was so happy working with young journalists,” Reimer said. “He wanted to create a newsroom where everyone was growing.
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“Rob was a tremendous storyteller, and he wanted to teach these young people how to tell people’s stories,” she said. “My impression was he was very fulfilled.”
Hiaasen taught a newswriting class in the spring at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
“He was a natural,” tweeted Rafael Lorente, an associate dean at Merrill. “Students loved him. Patient. Caring. And damn good.”
Hiaasen was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. He graduated from the University of Florida and worked at The Palm Beach Post, where the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors awarded him first place in general feature writing for a 1992 story about the death of a boy. He also worked at radio stations throughout the South.
In addition to his wife and three children, Hiaasen is survived by three older siblings, Carl, the novelist and Miami Herald columnist, Judy and Barb.
Rob Hiaasen was always proud of his famous brother, his wife said. He once wrote a story for The Sun in which he spoke to and about other brothers of the famous, including Billy Ripken, Cal’s brother.
As Hiassen self-effacingly and without verification wrote: “You can't hit or write your way out of a shadow.”