Remembrances of longtime Santa Fe New Mexican editor Rob Dean don’t use the word “legacy” lightly. 

News of his sudden death on Sunday, Jan. 5, shook New Mexico’s small journalism community.  

After more than two decades at the helm of The New Mexican and a recent renewed role in fundraising for journalism, now Dean wasn’t behind the headlines anymore; he was the headline. 

This matters to Reporter readers not because the former king of the competition has fallen, but because he made journalism in our city and state better, and he provided a fertile, supportive training ground for newsroom leaders still working in New Mexico today. 

Dean is the person who made sure my home of choice would be Santa Fe, and without him I probably wouldn’t be sitting in this chair at the paper next door. By 2003, my byline had led The New Mexican’s front page more than once as I banged away with both barrels from the Associated Press Albuquerque Bureau. And I’m lucky that Dean had his eye on me. He’d heard I was looking for a job. I had mailed out dozens of packets with copies of my favorite stories and letters to editors about how I wanted to land in their newsrooms. I was sure Dean had seen this masterful sales pitch. 

“No,” he told me, “But I’m familiar with your work.” 

I can’t think of more encouraging words. For the next 10 years, he was a supportive mentor and trusted ally as I covered Santa Fe County, then the city government more broadly. A few months after he left The New Mexican, I carried my desk plant down Marcy Street exactly one driveway to become the editor, and later publisher of SFR. 

I’m among the friends, colleagues and readers who remember Dean, 65, as a glowing, kind presence in an industry more known for the gruff and surly. 
His wife of 42 years, Toni Dean, tells SFR that part of his personality developed early. 

“He told me that his mom told him one time, she sat him down and said: ‘You know happiness is a choice and kindness to others will be returned,’’’ she says. “He always lived by that philosophy. It wasn’t a facade. It was just who he was…it served him well.”

Dean shepherded The New Mexican newsroom through the big changes that hit journalism in the so-called modern era. After his retirement, he worked for a few years with the Patina Gallery on Palace Avenue, helping to craft promotional material. Then, he returned to journalism as executive director of Searchlight New Mexico, working to secure money for the nonprofit’s investigative reporting efforts. 

Dean is pictured at his retirement party in 2013.
Dean is pictured at his retirement party in 2013.
Billie Blair, who hired Dean in 1992 and worked beside him as the newspaper’s publisher until 2001, says she always felt he was “the right person at the right time for Santa Fe.”
“Rob understood the importance of covering both the everyday story and explaining to readers what was going on in the community and what that meant,” she tells SFR on Monday afternoon. “He had a phrase he used. He called it ‘connecting the dots.’”

Though almost everyone who encountered Dean experienced his good nature, those who worked closely with him say there was one thing that made him hot under the collar: efforts to impede the public's right to know how its government functioned.

“I would get frustrated because he would almost never get mad,” says Geoff Grammer, a sports writer for The Albuquerque Journal who reported under Dean in Santa Fe during two separate stints. “He was so even-keeled. The times he would were when I think he really felt somebody was withholding from the public and the community their right to know something was going on.”

Dean served on the board of directors for the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government for years, including as its president in 2007 during the sudden death of FOG co-founder Bob Johnson.
“During that transition, Dean made certain FOG continued to field the public’s questions on achieving their right to know and set the organization on a new and steady path,” reads a statement from the organization. “Dean was unwavering in his support and mentoring of reporters who filed [Inspection of Public Records Act] requests…and always gave editors extra time to fight when local governments tried to shield information. He never accepted excuses that public officials made for secrecy, believing that secrecy only serves the insiders, not the public. ”
Albuquerque attorney Kip Purcell, also a former FOG board member, tells SFR that Dean was “a marvelous president of FOG–patient and kind, but passionate about the public’s right to know.”
Dean was known as something of a recruiting expert, and was a believer in making sure the newsroom demographically reflected the community with compassion.

A landmark project he led on the scourge of drunken driving in New Mexico won a national award from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. That issue, in January of 2004, featured the names, stories and in most cases, photos, of every person who died the year before in the state in an alcohol-related crash.   

“I’ve yet to have an editor who hammered home the importance of personalizing stories the way Rob did,” Grammer says. “He was a guy who made everything personable. … He would say: ‘Remember we are writing about people and not just a DWI, and not just a law.” 

FOG gave Dean its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.

Dean was originally from Harlowton, Montana, and he came to New Mexico from a job at the Tacoma News-Tribune. He was an avid baseball fan who often vacationed in Phoenix with his wife and two sons to catch spring training.

Toni Dean, a career nurse, says it appears Rob experienced some sort of catastrophic medical event Sunday morning, though the cause of his death has yet to be determined. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and had recently made a treatment plan with doctors and begun telling friends and family about an optimistic prognosis, she says.
A police report says the two, who both were fighting off colds, watched the television news together at around 5 am Sunday; then Rob said he was going back to bed. She found him dead around 10:30 am.
A memorial service is planned for 3 pm, Sunday, Jan. 26 at St. Francis Auditorium in the New Mexico Museum of Art. 
“He always felt he led a charmed life and people had been so good to him,” Toni says. “He wanted to return the favor and believed that by informing people and giving them a voice, that helped society.”