Note: A public memorial service for Rob Dean will be held at 3pm on January 26, 2020, at the St. Francis Auditorium in Santa Fe.

Rob Dean was an ardent journalist and a gentleman, in a business that doesn’t always favor gentlemen. His job title at Searchlight New Mexico was executive director, but in truth he was our captain.

When he died suddenly on Jan. 5, our world shifted.

Rob was a big bear of a man who radiated instant warmth, putting people at ease and making them feel recognized. To use an old-fashioned Yiddish phrase, he was haimish: unpretentious, homey, welcoming. He genuinely cared about other people and they knew it; he was the guy you actually hoped to run into at the water cooler. Me, I was the lucky one who got to work at his side.

Rob was, and I speak for all of us (including myself, his peer in terms of age) a father figure, someone whose judgment was routinely solicited and whose praise was dearly treasured. We unconsciously sought his approval, hoping to elicit one of his “well done” notes. Those notes were keepers. They could be flowery in an old-fashioned way, but one never doubted their sincerity.

Here, for example, is his message to reporter Ed Williams following the publication of a May 2019 piece about the school-to-prison pipeline and a young man named Sebastian:
“The powerful story, images and presentation should be a wake-up call to all of us. Ed, you gave our readers a deeply sourced, rich narrative. You will move people, and action would be a rich reward indeed. I am proud that Searchlight can be a megaphone for Sebastian and his mother.”

That kind of praise meant a lot to Ed, who says, “I got to the point where I always looked forward to those emails. It wasn’t just the emails; he would make it a point to talk to me about my work, as well, and I’d get the occasional typed letter. It’s unusual in my experience to have someone in a management position go out of their way to make you feel appreciated, and I will really miss that.”

But while always kind, Rob was no softy.. He had high standards and expected the best of us. He let it be known when he was disappointed. A clear and creative thinker, he could pinpoint a problem and distill a solution in record time. He had an uncanny ability to cut to the chase and express himself with precision. It was a gift, looking back, that bore a relationship to his deep knowledge of military history.

Twelve years ago he went back to school and earned a master’s degree from Norwich University, a private military college in Vermont. The degree — and the fact that he obtained it while working full-time as The New Mexican’s editor, a position he held for more than two decades — was never something he bragged about. Most acquaintances weren’t even aware of it. But it was something he was proud of — along with the fact that he was a son of Montana — and he wore a Norwich sweater whenever the days got cold.

Why military history? The reason, as he told his wife, Toni, was because he figured you had to study war to help prevent it. The national political scene distressed him greatly. Journalism, he believed, was a bulwark against the erosion of democracy.

A voracious reader who had no awareness of the latest series on Netflix, he typically read two or three books a week (usually nonfiction) and kept a running tally of every book he’d read during the past year. The last time we talked he was finishing up the final touches on his best-book list for 2019.

Unfailingly kind, generous, gracious and openhearted. These words are clichés, but in Rob Dean’s case, they are the words that come to the lips of everyone who knew him.

Rob became our executive director in May 2018, one week before we lost major funding from a foundation we had relied on for ongoing support. Our future suddenly looked dire, and Searchlight was faced with the prospect of laying off our tiny staff and closing our doors.

Rob was instrumental in righting the course. His time here was consumed with raising money and keeping us afloat. He accomplished that goal splendidly, and Searchlight is indebted to him for his single-minded devotion. Thanks to him, we are prepared to push forward with our mission to create high-impact investigative journalism focused on issues of local, regional and national interest.

But he will be remembered for so much more. In every way, he was our captain.
​- Sara Solovitch

A public memorial service for Rob Dean will be held at 3pm on January 26, 2020, at the St. Francis Auditorium in Santa Fe. All are welcome to attend.

Sara Solovitch is the editor of Searchlight New Mexico. She supervised its launch in January 2018 with the Child Well-Being Project, an investigation into the plight of children and families in New Mexico....

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