When I heard the first reports about the horrific scene at the Annapolis Capital and Maryland Gazette, I tried to imagine how a newsroom I’d once visited had been transformed into a workplace of murder and mayhem. Early in the evening came the first ominous foreshadowing: an email from my former managing editor said everyone was concerned about Rob. No one could reach him. An hour later, I got a call from a Washington Post reporter who was writing about the five victims: “What,” he asked, “can you tell me about Rob Hiaasen?”
When you walked into the Baltimore Sun newsroom of the 1990s, the first person you were likely to notice was a 6-foot, 5-inch, silver-haired man who towered over his colleagues and — when he wasn’t writing — could often be found regaling fellow staffers with intriguing tales about his latest story. That man was Rob Hiaasen, who wrote for the Sun from 1993 to 2010 before joining the Capital in Annapolis, Md., where on Thursday afternoon he and four colleagues were shot to death.
Rob had joined the Sun from the Palm Beach Post in 1993, the same year I alighted in Charm City from the Inquirer. Once in the newsroom, I quickly discovered that the primary reason for remembering Rob was not his physical stature but his formidable journalistic skills. To borrow a phrase from the parlance of baseball, Rob, who was 59 when he died, was a five-tool player: He was an excellent reporter; he was a fluid writer; he produced feature stories with humor and grace; he tackled difficult investigative stories; and behind the scenes, he offered sage editing advice to his colleagues.
Rob loved words, and he labored over every sentence he crafted, drafting and redrafting under the ever-vigilant eye of features editor Jan Winburn, who shared his passion for memorable storytelling. His stories recounted the tales of everyday life in Baltimore and often ennobled the characters he discovered on his jaunts through the city and the hinterlands of Maryland — from Fells Point and Canton on the waterfront to the rural countryside of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Writing in 2004 about Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, the first death-row inmate to be cleared through DNA evidence, Rob began his story this way: “This is where he always belonged. Way outside of any kind of city, outside rows of no-till beans invaded by wild turkeys, outside in his Eastern Shore back yard with his Weber gas grill — just plain outside. He’d like to stay, but he’s needed elsewhere.” At the time, Bloodsworth was about to begin a 25-city tour to promote a book he’d written about his experiences on death row.
In another story about Bloodsworth’s prison ordeal and his ascent to poster-boy prominence, Rob wrote: “No longer in the company of convicts, Bloodsworth is in the company of Congressmen. If his death sentence for the murder of a 9-year-old Rosedale girl was his defining moment, life after his exoneration for that crime has been a redefining moment. ‘Man, it’s been a damn road, buddy,’ Bloodsworth says.”
Another one of Rob’s memorable pieces focused on a high school basketball star, Steve Stielper, who squandered his college years at James Madison University, got cut by the Indiana Pacers of the NBA, and ended up delivering pizzas for Domino’s in Anne Arundel County.
Outside the newsroom, Rob was an ever-gregarious, generous, blithe spirit: During my years at the Sun, he and his colleague Kevin Cowherd, a columnist with an omnipresent sense of humor, could often be found at Alonso’s tavern, quaffing cold beers at the bar and gobbling the restaurant’s gigantic burgers, a legendary specialty of the house, where I was on occasion a beneficiary of Rob’s largesse.
It was in Baltimore that Rob and his wife, Maria, a one-time journalist who became an English teacher at Dulaney High School in Baltimore County, raised their family of three — Ben, 29, a lawyer; Samantha, 27, an assistant manager at a Barnes & Noble bookstore at the Inner Harbor; and Hannah, a New York artist.
Reading the tributes to Rob in the Capital, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald and on Facebook, it’s obvious that at the Capital, he had honed the editing skills that he first exhibited at the Sun. My former colleague Susan Reimer said in an interview in the Sun that Rob “wanted to teach these young people how to tell people’s stories. My impression was he was very fulfilled.”
It certainly seemed that way to me: In our last exchange of emails, Rob wrote, “Lo and behold, I find myself managing the newsroom here at the Capital for the last few years. It’s a sharp, fun group of reporters….”
On Facebook, Rob’s brother, Carl Hiaasen, the best-selling author, wrote on Thursday that “we called him ‘Big Rob,’ because he was so tall, but it was his remarkable heart and humor that made him larger than all of us. Please keep our family in your thoughts and prayers tonight.”