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'Just a great guy': Former colleagues at Raleigh's WPTF recall slain journalist Rob Hiaasen

This undated photo shows Rob Hiaasen, Capital Gazette Deputy Editor.  Hiaasen was one of the victims when an active shooter targeted the newsroom, Thursday, June 28, 2018 in Annapolis, Md.
This undated photo shows Rob Hiaasen, Capital Gazette Deputy Editor. Hiaasen was one of the victims when an active shooter targeted the newsroom, Thursday, June 28, 2018 in Annapolis, Md. The Baltimore Sun via AP

Rob Hiaasen, one of the five journalists gunned down at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, on Thursday, worked during the early part of his news career at WPTF NewsRadio 680 in Raleigh.

Hiaasen, 59, accomplished a lot during his short time at WPTF in 1984-85. He covered the execution of “Death Row Granny” murderer Velma Barfield, along with Jesse Helms’ defeat of Jim Hunt in a contentious U.S. Senate race. But his most important accomplishment was a personal one.

It was while at WPTF that Hiaasen met Maria Mills, a news anchor at WQDR and the woman who would become his wife.

Mike Raley, who was Hiaasen’s colleague at WPTF during that time, called it “a true romance. A fast romance.” The Baltimore Sun reported that the two married five months after their first date.

Rob and Maria celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary last week. They had three children: Ben, 29, an attorney in Maryland; Samantha, 27, a bookstore manager in Maryland; and Hannah, 26, an artist in New York.

Hiaasen, a Florida native (and brother of novelist and Miami Herald newspaper columnist Carl Hiaasen), returned to his home state after leaving WPTF. He did award-winning work at The Palm Beach Post in Florida before joining The Baltimore Sun, which owns the Capital Gazette, in 1993. He became an assistant editor at the Gazette in 2010.

“He was a delight. Such a gregarious guy and just fun to be around,” said Raley, an anchor for WPTF and the North Carolina News Network. “He was 6-foot-five and very charismatic, just walking into a room. He was always walking fast, zipping around the newsroom.”

Brad Crone, a longtime political consultant in Raleigh, worked with Hiaasen at WPTF. Hiaasen traveled with Hunt during his Senate campaign and Crone traveled with Helms. The two collaborated on stories.

“He was just a great guy,” Crone said. “The comments out of Annapolis talked about how he was a gentle giant, and he truly was. Even at 23 or 24, he was very reserved, just a great writer.”

Crone recalled that one night he was heading into the studio after covering a very complicated Wake County School Board meeting and that he was lamenting to Rob that he only had 45 seconds to talk about everything that went on.

“He looked at me and said, ‘just tell the story that the listeners would like to hear.’ So even at 23 he was able to help a younger reporter improve his writing skills and storytelling skills.”

Crone also recalled a time when the younger newsroom staff went to see “Ghostbusters” together and afterward, Rob, who sat in the middle of the newsroom, would sometimes call out “Who you gonna call?” and the others would respond with “Ghostbusters!” — much to the confusion of the older staffers.

“The older folks didn’t know what the hell we were talking about,” Crone laughed. “Rob had a real dry wit about him and enjoyed an inside joke.”

As great as he was at writing for radio, Crone said Hiaasen’s true calling was newspapers.

“It’s very different style of writing for print and for radio,” Crone said. “He was a master of both styles.”

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