Rob Hiaasen: An exemplary life, a violent death in Annapolis

Remembering a friendship with a kind and generous journalist

No, not Rob.

I spent a few hours Thursday afternoon telling myself not to imagine that the gunman who blasted his way into the Capital Gazette newsroom killed my old friend, Rob.

Of all people. Not Rob. Not a man who’s way too gentle and kind to deserve a violent death at the hands of a deranged gunman.

Rob Hiaasen was one of my first friends at The Palm Beach Post. It was 1989. He was a feature writer and I was a new reporter who used to work with his big brother, Carl, at The Miami Herald.

>>REMEMBERING ROB HIAASEN: He left his mark at The Palm Beach Post

I quickly learned that Rob was nothing like his older brother.

Carl, the columnist and novelist, was clever and caustic. Rob was gentle and self-deprecating, like his writing, which unfolded like an elegant flower.

Here’s the top of his biggest story at The Post, an award-winning saga on how a dentist in Martin County spread HIV to his patients through his instruments.

“Most stories have endings. This one never did. The defiant mystery of what happened in Dr. David Acer’s dental office remains unsolved.”

Rob was a natural storyteller and one of those tall people who walked slightly stooped as if to apologize for showing off his height. It probably bugged him that he routinely was asked by the people he interviewed if he was related to his famous brother.

>>FLORIDA COVERAGE: See how state newspapers covered the shooting

But he never showed it. Rob wasn’t an attention seeker, and if he had an ego, he never showed it.

There was a time when a newsroom clerk decided to match names of reporters to their physical appearance. She wrote a one-word description next to the reporters’ names, so she could remember who was who. The word next to Rob Hiassen was “cute.”

Rob just blushed and said nothing.

We used to eat lunch together, but what Rob really liked to do was just pretend we were going out to lunch. Then we’d drive to Phipps Park in West Palm Beach, and he’d pop the trunk of his car and pull out two baseball gloves and a hard ball.

“Wanna play catch?” he’d say.

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.

We also shared our writing. I was writing a self-indulgent 600-page novel that never got published. Rob read every word like it was the Magna Carta and gave me a detailed critique. Once in a while at night, we used to get together with Michael Crook, another local reporter, and toss around the creative writing projects we were doing on the side.

Rob was gentle with that, too, always willing to spend more time on somebody else’s work.

When he left the paper to write feature stories for The Baltimore Sun, we lost touch with each other, only catching up occasionally on social media.

I knew he was working at the Annapolis newspaper, and when I first heard about the shooting Thursday, I sent Rob a message on Twitter: “My heart goes out to you today, Rob. I hope you are safe and sound.”

I kept going back minute after minute, in the hope of seeing a response from him. But as the minutes turned to hours, I imagined him standing there, probably smiling when the gunman walked in.

I’m not going to hear from Rob again.

“I miss the paper still — more than I probably admit to myself,” Rob wrote to me on Facebook two years ago.

“I wish you were still here,” I answered, “so we could throw a baseball around in Phipps Park during lunch.”

And right now, I wish he could be my trusted reader again, looking over my shoulder on this piece to tell me gently that I might want to rewrite the part about him dying, that he was somehow still in this world.

Where he belongs.

No, not Rob.

Read some of Rob Hiassen’s stories in The Palm Beach Post:

Rob Hiaasen on South Florida: A gator’s tale

Rob Hiaasen on Kimberly Bergalis: ‘If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone’

Rob Hiaasen on the Super Bowl: Even in Tampa, war makes big game less than super

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