I was driving home from Ocean City on this day last year when I received a text from my friend, Steve Marcus. He wanted to know if I was aware of the horrible news coming out of Annapolis. A mass shooting had taken place at one of our workplaces, had taken the lives of five in our journalism family, had taken the life of my friend and former colleague, Rob Hiaasen. A year later, emotions are still raw, events still surreal, grief still overwhelming for those closest to the five who lost their lives on a day when all they did was come to work. I don’t want my lasting memory of Rob to be of that day, but of those that came before it — those that defined the father, brother, friend and co-worker he was. The grace with which he lived his life, and the grace with which he would want us to live ours. What follows is the story I wrote after his memorial service.
Back when he was working for the Palm Beach Post, Rob Hiaasen would tell co-worker Frank Cerabino that they should go out for lunch. Cerabino knew what that meant. Hiaasen would drive to a park in West Palm Beach, open the trunk of the car and pull out two gloves and a baseball. “Wanna play catch?” Cerabino recalled Hiaasen saying in a June 29 column he wrote about his friend: “And we did — two grown men with shirts and ties, throwing the ball to each other on the side of Dixie Highway. Pop-ups, grounders and long throws, until our arms grew sore and we sweated through our shirts. That was Rob’s idea of a good time.”
On Monday, with nearly 500 people sweating through their shirts inside a tent on a hot and humid evening at the Irvine Nature Center, Maria Hiaasen recalled sitting in the backyard with her husband of 33 years, appreciating the grass that had finally grown and the sounds of the birds. “He taught me that quiet is good for you,” said Maria, who teaches English at Dulaney High School. “Let your mind be still.
“I’m still trying,” she said.
Rob and four of his co-workers — Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters — were killed in the attack on the Annapolis Capital Gazette newspaper office on June 28th. Rebecca was an advertising sales assistant, the other four were journalists. But to label any of them by their profession does a disservice to their families, friends and the community they served with distinction and passion. Of the five, I only knew Rob, who was 59. Last Monday evening, Maria sat with family, surrounded by friends that included her “Dulaney family” and Rob’s newspaper family.
Rob’s brother Carl, a best-selling author, spoke warmly, humorously and extemporaneously about his sibling, acknowledging that he had written down just one word: grace. “My brother was a person of phenomenal grace,” he said.
It is what we need now more than ever — grace for those closest to us and for those with whom we see no connection. It is a gift we don’t deserve, one we didn’t earn, but one that is essential in a society so divided by differences. Rob embraced those differences. He defended the underdog, or the misbehaving dog as we learned at the service to celebrate his life. He wrote about those wrongly convicted, and he was unwavering in his commitment to causes he believed in.
However, when I think of Rob, my first thoughts are kindness and gentleness. They towered even over his 6-foot-5 frame. His daughter Hannah, a New York artist, recalled the time they were leaving their home for a year and taking their two labs to live with a relative. It was her first sense of loss, and she remembered hearing her dad cry for the first time in the hotel room the night before the separation. She also remembered that he used humor during times of sadness because he hated to see those he loved in pain.
Rob’s son, Ben, a lawyer, talked about the journals his dad wrote for his three children — daughter Samantha, an assistant manager at the Barnes & Noble at the Inner Harbor, shared her dad’s love for poetry. Ben said his dad had planned to give him his journal when he had his first child, but instead gave it to him when he finished college. Through tears, Ben read: “Part of me can’t wait until you read this. Maybe you’ll call me on the phone and tell me what you think.”
In that moment, we thought of Rob as a dad, a husband, a brother, a friend, a neighbor and, yes, a newspaperman who had shifted his focus from writing stories to editing those by his gifted young reporters at the Capital Gazette. And teaching students at College Park who wanted to be reporters.
“Rob was telling these young people of College Park, ‘Hey, we need you out there, we need you reporting the facts, we need you telling the truth,’ ” said Kevin Cowherd, who sat next to Rob for 15 years at The Sun. “So that’s how I’m going to remember my great friend, Rob Hiaasen.”
As his brother Carl said, “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.”
Rob was loved, because he loved so many, and loved what he did. He loved throwing a baseball as if he were still a kid. He loved writing and approached it like a craftsman. He loved being an editor and a teacher. Most of all, he loved his family and his friends. One of his best friends, Paul Stiff, recalled getting caught cheating on a test in seventh grade, when he glanced at Rob’s paper for answers. He said Rob was a remarkable student even then, but what stood out was what Rob did after the teacher publicly berated Paul. He told Paul after school that they should go for a ride on his bike and do something fun; Rob’s compassion was evident early.
Rob’s daughter Hannah recalled that when she once told her dad she was self-conscious about her looks, he said, “Well, it doesn’t help that you’re left-handed.” She also said that her dad noticed that her journal was upside-down. She pointed out that her world was now upside-down and that, yes, Dad, she had written what she told the group left-handed.
There was length to Rob Hiaasen, and depth. There was nothing fake about him. As far as I know, he didn’t have an enemy. He brought out the best in us by being his best every day. He was a man of grace. He was one of us. They were all one of us.
Editor’s Note: Judy Hiaasen, who said Rob read her diary, cleaned his bowling ball with her toothbrush and took her James Taylor albums, noted that her baby brother was the favorite. She once picked him up at the airport holding a sign for “Mr. Special.” He loved it. Dulaney cross country coach Chad Boyle, who coached Ben, said Maria was a member of the Dulaney 5:30 club, those who arrive early to prepare for the day. Grief is a non-linear process that reminds us that we can handle only one day at a time, and often in smaller increments. Monday’s turnout offers hope that the support will be there for each step of that journey.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.