Rob Hiaasen, a feature writer and editor recalled for the deft and understanding touch he applied to his off-center stories, will be remembered Monday at a private memorial service. He was one of the five staff members killed Thursday at the Annapolis Capital Gazette.
The Timonium man was 59.
“Rob was a terrific reporter because he had an innate curiosity,” said the former Baltimore Sun columnist Kevin Cowherd, a close friend. “He was a master of asking questions of the people he wrote about. It was one of his strengths. He was also drawn to quirky characters. In all his writing he tried to bring out the humanity.”
Mr. Hiaasen was born in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Kermit Odel Hiaasen, an attorney, and Patricia Moran, a homemaker. He graduated from Plantation High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications at the University of Florida.
He initially worked as an AM radio reporter and landed a job in Raleigh, N.C. There he met a competitor, Maria Mills.
“It was a small town and small radio market and everybody knew each other,” she said. “We got married and moved around and landed in San Antonio.
“We both hated our jobs there.”
Mr. Hiaasen reconsidered his radio work and decided instead to pursue newspaper writing and reporting. He got a reporting job at an afternoon paper, the Petersburg, Va., Progress Index. But first, he had to pass the paper’s oral spelling test.
“He remembered to put the P in raspberry,” Maria Hiaasen said. “He was always a good speller.”
Within 18 months, he and his wife moved on to the Palm Beach Post. He worked in its downtown newsroom; she covered police in Palm Beach, County.
Tom O’Hara, the retired managing editor of the Palm Beach Post, recognized the last name on Mr. Hiaasen’s job application. He knew Mr. Hiaasen’s brother, the novelist and longtime Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen.
“Rob was just charming,” Mr. O’Hara said. “It was a like a no-brainer to hire him. He was a Florida boy and that was a great attraction to me.”
Mr. O’Hara assigned Mr. Hiaasen to cover county government, a beat overseen by a meticulous editor. Mr. Hiaasen often began his stories with colorful anecdotes, while his editor required numbers.
“For Rob, it was a baptism by fire,” Mr. O’Hara said. “His editor would lop off the first three paragraphs. It was clear Rob belonged in features.
“He thrived there and was a delight. He was enthusiastic about his stories. Everybody loved him. I liked sitting by him and listening to his little asides.”
In 1991, Mr. Hiaasen wrote a feature about five people who contracted AIDS from a Palm Beach dentist. “Dr. Acer’s Deadly Secret: How AIDS joined the lives of a dentist and his patients,” won a national journalism writing award, and Mr. Hiaasen was hired by The Baltimore Sun as a features writer.
Colleagues recalled his daily routine. He took long walks, and became enamored of Baltimore’s neighborhoods and their characters. He ambled through Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon and Fells Point in search of offbeat tales to tell.
Friends said Mr. Hiassen steered clear of newsroom factions and social circles. One described him affectionately as “a tall, brooding Norwegian.”
“Only two words in that phrase are true,” Mr. Cowherd said. “Rob was never brooding. He needed to laugh the way he needed oxygen. He was the best colleague you could ever have. In a roomful of towering egos, he was the first guy to come up and say, ‘You did a great job.’ ”
Mr. Hiaasen wrote about Mel Sherr, a veteran of D-Day familiar to Baltimoreans as a strolling violin player.
“Mr. Sherr knows what your favorite song is,” Mr. Hiassen wrote. “While he's asking guests where they're from, he'll be guessing their age and era. He'll then pluck a song from his play list and play. Guests nod their heads and smile. Some blush. They now remember what they had forgotten. … Mr. Sherr will not be stumped by requests.”
He also wrote about Kirk Bloodsworth, the ex-Marine and Eastern Shore waterman who was the first person to be sentenced to death and then exonerated by DNA evidence.
Mr. Hiaasen spent a year from 2003 to 2004 as a John Knight Fellow in Journalism at Stanford University. While there, he acted in a play and studied singing.
Mr. Hiaasen accepted a newsroom buyout offer in 2008 and left The Sun. By 2010 he joined the Annapolis Capital. He mentored reporters as an editor and wrote a Sunday column.
“He did an amazing pivot to become an editor,” Mr. Cowherd said. “He became everything you want of a good editor — gently pushing them to do their best work and to not accept mediocrity.”
He also taught a news writing class at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
And he kept telling his stories in his gentle tone.
“When there's no hiding from news, it's time for a haircut,” he advised in a column late last year. “Getting a haircut — once a horrific, spirit-crushing event during the teenage years — is a safe haven for the news beleaguered. There, in the wrapped confines of your barber's or stylist's chair, you can slink away to a news-free zone. There, on your temporary throne, you are clipped and pampered by intimate hands.”