“Yo, Faruq,” a man in a passing car shouted before beeping his horn as Robert “Robby” Wideman crossed Baum Boulevard. At 71, Wideman, who was also known as Faruq during his 44 years in prison, cuts a dapper figure who retains the angularity of his youth, if not the confident jaunt of the early decades of his “lost years.”
We’d just finished dinner at Tana’s Ethiopian Cuisine, his first encounter with food from the horn of Africa. When his meat combo platter arrived, he took one look at the folded injera, a pancake-like flatbread provided to scoop and sop the food, and requested cutlery. He was eager to try the food, but he wasn’t ready to eat with his hands.
Robert Wideman’s sense of decorum is not surprising. Sentenced to life without the possibility of parole as an accomplice to a murder in 1975, his unanimous commutation by the state parole board followed by Gov. Tom Wolf’s signature freeing him three years ago continues to fill him with awe and gratitude.
He’s intensely curious about the world, but he approaches life like a stoic. He’s measured in his language and actions and doesn’t dive into anything without checking it out thoroughly. He’s finally become the version of himself he wished he’d been when a member of his crew shot used car salesman Nichola Morena in a robbery gone sideways.
Even in the early days of his incarceration when he had no reason to believe he would ever see the outside of prison again, he generated hope by thinking in terms of “three year plans,” no matter how absurd they appeared.
After a failed escape attempt, he used his time in prison to become a model citizen. It didn’t matter that the Morena family was skeptical. He was determined to make amends to society for his role in the death of Nicky Morena.
He stopped taking drugs that were readily available throughout the prison, got his GED, took higher-level math and science courses for college credit, taught his fellow inmates to pursue education as an act of liberation and turned his life around in every conceivable way.
His intellectual journey also became a spiritual quest that led him into and eventually out of the Muslim community, where he was known as Faruq. His search for redemption via Eastern religion and philosophy became an internalized compulsion to put good into the world. That’s why he insists he harbors no bitterness or anger toward the Morena family for opposing his parole until the very end. “They lost a son, a brother,” he said.
In 1993, Robby Wideman’s own son was lost to street violence in Pittsburgh. Convinced that there was more than enough dark karma to go around, he became even more determined to break the cycle of violence that had fractured his family.
In spring 2019, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala opposed Wideman’s release as he had so many times before, but the momentum for mercy overcame his usual obstruction this time.
These days, Robby Wideman is a certified community service worker for the Allegheny Health Network. He spends five days a week reaching out to “homeless, addicted people” that society “doesn’t pay a lot of attention to.” He works primarily in Homewood.
“This is an extension of what I’d been doing in prison,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for decades. I discovered the best way to help yourself is to help someone else.”
At this point in his life, Robby Wideman isn’t trying to assuage a guilty conscience. Sharing his story of redemption from drugs and the criminal life is the most valuable thing he believes he has to give the world.
Not everyone is ready for the message, but enough to make it worth his while to continue reaching out. “People eventually warm up to you,” he says.
The Monroeville resident says he can always be found scouring the “abandonminiums” of Homewood and other neighborhoods for those ready to leave their world of pain and hopelessness behind.
While the ghost of Nicky Moreno may linger in the background, it is Robert Wideman’s spirit now doing the heavy lifting.
Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.