Philly writer tries to make sense of his friend's short and tragic life

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Jeff Hobbs visiting Philadelphia's Love Park on Mar. 13, 2015. ( Chanda Jones / Staff Photographer )

YOU'VE PROBABLY never heard of Rob Peace, but you might have.

Peace was supposed to have done really big things with his life.

The son of a single mother and a dad jailed for murder, he grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Newark, N.J., during the height of that city's crack-fueled drug wars. His mother worked in a hospital cafeteria and scrimped to get him into a private high school, where he excelled, earning straight A's. After graduating at the top of his class, Peace enrolled at Yale University on a full scholarship paid by a wealthy benefactor, who told him, "You can go to college wherever you want."

At the Ivy League school in Connecticut, he felt out of place surrounded by so much old money and privilege. Yet, he still managed to make a name for himself by studying molecular biophysics and biochemistry, and also by being a star athlete on the school's water polo team. Peace also became known as the campus pot dealer.

After graduating in 2002, instead of going on to graduate school or continuing his scientific research as one might expect, Peace returned home to Newark, where he accepted a job teaching biology at his alma mater. He traveled extensively to far-flung locales such as Brazil and also delved deeper into the drug trade.

Peace was just 30 when he was fatally shot in his basement laboratory in Newark, where he had been growing marijuana. Authorities removed about 25 pounds of pot from the bloody scene. His slaying remains unsolved.

His college roommate, Jeff Hobbs, who grew up in Kennett Square in Chester County, was flabbergasted when he learned his friend was dead via Facebook. After the funeral, Hobbs began to ask around to see what Yalies as well as Peace's Newark friends knew of his killing, and got the idea to write The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.

I met up with him earlier this month when he was in Philadelphia.

I was excited to meet him. Ever since reading The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace earlier this year, I had been haunted by Peace's story and how he'd seemingly been caught between two worlds - his old 'hood and the Ivy League. Peace had it all - smarts, education, leadership abilities - but still somehow managed to throw it all away. He was his hardworking mother's son, but to me, it seemed he also was haunted by the proverbial sins of his drug-dealer father.

"To me that's putting him in a box," Hobbs pointed out. "I lived in a very small room with him for four years, and I can assure you that he was one person. . . . Certainly some unlucky things happened to him and he made some really bad decisions. He also made some great decisions."

Hobbs, an award-winning novelist who now lives in Los Angeles, said that since the book's publication last year, people had been asking him if there had been a moment when Peace could have been saved.

"People want to look for pivotal moments, but this book is more about the small moments," Hobbs pointed out.

The biography, which has been optioned by Hollywood film director Antoine Fuqua, is full of them. Early on in the book, Hobbs tells of Peace's mother discovering that teachers at his nursery school had nicknamed him "professor" because of his intelligence. Peace starts high school unable to swim but quickly becomes not only proficient but a star on his school's water polo team. While at Yale, he gets invited to join a prestigious secret society where he shocks members by recounting what he believes was the unjust conviction of his dad, and he later accepts a job as a baggage handler at Newark International Airport. It's not a neat little story. But whose life really is?

"It's messy being a person," Hobbs said. "We all stumble through our 20s. Hopefully, people will relate.

"I just wanted people to know this guy."

 


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Email: armstrj@phillynews.com