As I made my way inside the Crystal Plaza cocktail room, I immediately scanned the crowd for a friendly face, or at least one that looked vaguely familiar. It was May 2017, and having been with NJJN about nine months at that point, I was attending the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey’s Lasting Impressions Gala to get to know some of our local leaders.
I was standing there awkwardly when I spotted Robert Wiener, NJJN’s long-time staff writer, seated at a small round table in the corner. He waved me over, offered me a chair, and proceeded to introduce me to various members of the community, relationships he had cultivated over the years. This smiling version of Bob was different than the sometimes dour reporter I interacted with daily. This Bob was in his element.
Until then I hadn’t seen this side of Bob, and unfortunately, it took his passing to realize just how much more to him there was.
At the conclusion of Shabbat on Sept. 15, I turned on my phone and learned of Bob’s death. It did not come as a surprise; I had visited him in the hospital a day earlier and, though still hoping for a miracle, it was clear his time was short. Before I left the hospital, I told him we needed him back at work on Monday to write about the Jewish Historical Society, an organization dear to his heart. Of course I was being facetious, but I never expected he would be gone two days later.
I liked Bob. I envied the speed he could transcribe interviews, a skill that has eluded and frustrated me throughout my career. I got a kick out of the resignation in his voice whenever I asked him to make changes to a story or to call another source. I laughed — at least after the fact — at his habit of saving the photos for his stories on his desktop instead of in the shared network where the editors could access them. And even the decidedly secular Bob seemed to appreciate the irony that some higher power he didn’t believe in saw fit to place him in a position where he was responsible for covering Jewish news.
Moments after learning the news about Bob, I reached out to my predecessor at NJJN, Andrew Silow-Carroll, now the editor in chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, to pen a column about his former colleague. After all, he knew Bob for 12 years, to my two; it only seemed appropriate. When the memories started pouring in on Facebook and in emails, some of which are included in our own tribute to Bob (see page 21), I knew I had made the right call. There was just so much more to him than I had known.
NJJN was really his second career. I knew Bob spent decades as a television producer, but I came to learn that his previous employers included WCBS, WABC, NBC, CourtTV, and News 4 New York with reporter Gabe Pressman. “They shared a number of local Emmys, including an award for Outstanding Issues Reporting for a 1989 series called ‘The Lost Children,’ a harrowing account of infant mortality, foster care, and homelessness in New York,” as Silow-Carroll wrote in “Remembering Bob” (Sept. 20).
Bob produced segments on Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Newman, and Stephen King, and he traveled to South Africa to cover Nelson Mandela’s release from prison after 27 years. And though Bob was loathe to be labeled a progressive, he was an activist in the civil rights, anti-war, and women’s rights movements.
At some point I realized that his interest in music was actually his passion. He pitched a story about a jazz musician who would be performing nearby, but just out of our catchment area, and with ties to Judaism that were tenuous, at best. Still, I could tell that he really wanted to do it, so I gave him the OK. The story was among the best he wrote for us during my tenure, and after that we made sure to assign him any and all stories about music and culture. (Sadly, he was unable to contribute to the special Fall Arts Preview in this issue.)
When I arrived at the office on the Monday following Bob’s death, the NJJN staff huddled around a computer screen and watched a YouTube video of Bob performing a few songs at an open mic at a NYC piano bar, Don’t Tell Mama. Besides singing a showtune, he added one of his own, a satirical take on Facebook to the tune of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” We all laughed, some teared up, and I was left wondering how I missed so much about this man who sat less than 50 feet from me.
One of our running jokes in the office was that it seemed the octogenarians and beyond that Bob profiled — he was adept at capturing the details of these individuals’ lives — seemed to pass away soon after their stories appeared in print. Now I have to wonder if Bob was working on an autobiography when he took ill. If he did, hopefully, for once, he remembered to save it on the shared network where I can find it. I sure wish I could have read it when he was still around.