As a newspaper writer and columnist, Rob Hiaasen relished exploring the everyday absurdities and joys of life: choosing a spirit animal, calling his mother in Florida on Sundays, the small pleasures of ignoring the headlines while in the barber chair.
Hiaasen, who had deep family and journalism roots in South Florida, was a rare voice in the media — warm, witty, often comforting. It was silenced on Thursday when he was murdered along with four other staffers in the newsroom of a Maryland newspaper.
"He had a zeal for writing and finding good stories," said Jon Morgan, a former editor at the Baltimore Sun who worked with Hiaasen. "On the darkest days of cutbacks and layoffs in journalism, Rob was an inspiration."
Hiaasen, 59, had worked as a columnist and editor for the Capital Gazette in Annapolis since 2010. But his connections to South Florida were lifelong. He grew up with his brother, Miami Herald columnist and author Carl Hiaasen, in the Fort Lauderdale area and worked at the Palm Beach Post in the 1990s.
"He was a beautiful writer. People liked to talk to him. He was so nice and funny and smart and self-deprecating," said Tom O'Hara, the former managing editor at the Post. "I just loved editing his stories."
At the Gazette, Hiaasen served as assistant managing editor, and penned a weekly features column. In many ways, it was the opposite in tone of his brother Carl, who specializes in skewering political fat cats under his famous journalism mission statement to "kick ass."
"He loved the mission of journalism and he loved the idea of working at a paper like the Gazette, doing hometown news, which is the core and the heart of our business," Carl Hiaasen said on Thursday night. "He was a remarkable brother and a remarkable man."
Rob Hiaasen did his share of hard-edged news but he also was never afraid to have fun and take risks, like when he wrote a column about yearning for better spring weather in Maryland. His solution: He donned a snorkel and went for a dive — in the snow in his backyard.
"When you find yourself pining for the sun by snorkeling in the snow — and you think Weber grills talk to each other — it’s time to stop. Or go on vacation," Hiaasen wrote.
In 2010, in between journalism jobs, Hiaasen went back to school, to become a substitute teacher. He wrote about the experience in a column for the Washington Post. Hiaasen was a tall imposing figure but at heart a big teddy bear of a man more intimidated than the kids, at least at first.
"The hardest part was the first time I walked into a classroom,'' Hiassen told NPR, "wondering what I'm going to say that's going to set the tone, so they have a productive day."
Hiaasen was hired at the Palm Beach Post in the 1990s to cover county government but displayed a writing flair that begged for better material than millage rates. "We used to always laugh at his three-paragraph anecdotal leads," said O'Hara.
He later moved to the features department and met his wife, Maria Hiaasen, at the newspaper. He then spent 15 years at The Baltimore Sun, where his curiosity was never sated by the city life buzzing around him.
One day, while walking to lunch with colleagues, he spotted a Korean couple picking up fallen nuts from the ginkgo tree outside the Sun newsroom. That turned into a column about the history of the Asian delicacy — and meeting new friends.
"He had the eye to spot that. He struck up a conversation and he got a great story out of it," said Morgan, the former Sun editor. "It was very typical of him."
As a longtime journalist, he was also keenly aware of the dangers of the profession throughout history. In 2006, he chronicled the dedication of a memorial commissioned by the Freedom Forum, which studies media issues — the monument honored journalists killed on the job.
Nancy Ancrum, the Herald's editorial-board editor, said the deaths of Hiaasen and his Maryland colleagues felt like losing family members.
"We are devastated at the loss of Rob Hiaasen. Carl is family. And when family is in pain and grief, so are we," said Ancrum. "We also mourn the four other victims because journalists are family, too. We wish Carl and his loved ones a measure of peace in the face of such senselessness."
In 2003, Hiaasen won a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. He also taught journalism at the University of Maryland.
He and his wife have three children. He is also the uncle of Scott Hiaasen, Carl's son and a former Herald investigative journalist who is now an attorney in Miami. Scott Hiaasen is married to Jenny Staletovich, who covers the environment for the Herald.
Scott Hiaasen called the loss to the family "crushing" and said his uncle was an inspiration — and not just to his own journalism career.
"He was so proud to help young writers," said Scott Hiaasen, who started as an intern at the Palm Beach Post in the 1990s. "I got to share a newsroom with my uncle. Not many people can say that. We talked every day. Swapped stories. He helped teach me to be a reporter."