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End of the Line

Peter Freyne, 1949-2009


Published January 14, 2009 at 6:28 a.m.

Peter David Freyne was born on November 18, 1949, in the Bronx, New York, and grew up in nearby Hartsdale. He was the only child of Agnes and James Francis “Frank” Freyne, but had two older half-siblings from his father’s previous marriage. Peter attended Iona Preparatory in New Rochelle and graduated at age 16. His father, he said, wanted him to “finish school and get out of the house.” Peter did just that, first attending Maryknoll Seminary in Chicago. But he did an about-face on the way to his priestly vocation when he “became an atheist” instead. Peter lost interest in religion, but not in matters of justice. At Chicago’s Loyola University, he majored in sociology and met the famous community organizer Saul Alinsky. Peter called Alinsky a “personal hero” and his 1971 book, Rules for Radicals, a major influence on his own thinking.

During college, in the heady years of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Peter drove a cab a few nights a week; years later, he credited this job with fundamentally shaping his views on human nature. “I would take cab driving any day as teaching you how to be a journalist,” he once told an interviewer. “You gotta understand all kinds of people, be able to read people, be able to tell when people are telling the truth or lying.”

After graduation, armed with Alinsky-esque ideals, Peter got a job at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, as assistant to the student president. “I was an organizer and rabble-rouser,” he recalled. “I did such a good job, they didn’t want me back.”

Instead, he went backpacking around Europe for a few months, and the trip included a visit to his father’s homeland, Ireland. When he returned to Minnesota, Peter became a nurses’ aide and helped organize a union, work that he remembered fondly.

Peter’s life and career changed course again when he moved to Burlington, Vermont, in 1979. He quickly fell in love with the city and the state, and rarely left it afterward. He was intrigued by the Queen City’s lively political scene — a fellow New Yorker, Bernard Sanders, was soon to become mayor. Peter found his place in this sphere as a journalist. Or, more to the point, as the self-described “hit man” of Vermont media. He began in radio, delivering live news for WDEV and WDOT; later, in the 1990s, he reported for WKDR. He also appeared frequently on TV over the ensuing years, as a guest or host on such long-running programs as Vermont Public Television’s political roundup, “Vermont This Week,” and CCTV’s “Point Counterpoint.”

But it was arguably in his print column, “Inside Track,” that Peter truly found his voice. Birthed at the Vanguard Press in the mid-1980s, it grew in popularity as Peter developed his style and, more importantly, undertook his fearless, unrelenting pursuit of truth. He became a terror to those in power — or seeking power — and an ardent defender of “the little guy.” He held everyone, regardless of political party, accountable for their words and deeds. Along the way he stepped on toes, pushed buttons, acquired enemies . . . and made press conferences a lot livelier. Noted a fellow reporter, “Peter was the guy who so many times said the emperor has no clothes.” Even so, he won the grudging respect of many officeholders who acknowledged the importance of the media watchdog.

Peter’s caustic commentary was offset by a unique sense of humor. One hallmark of his approach was giving his subjects — primarily politicians — succinct and often silly nicknames. Many loyal readers will long think of now-Senator Bernie Sanders as “Ol’ Bernardo,” Senator Patrick Leahy as “St. Patrick,” and Governor Jim Douglas as “Gov. Scissorhands.”

Peter took an excursion to the other side of politics in 1990, when he became press secretary to then-Governor Madeleine Kunin. Like his other attempts at being a well-behaved employee, it was short lived: Peter was fired after making an ill-advised, and widely publicized, sexual remark to a Burlington Free Press reporter. Unlike the losses of previous jobs, however, this one stung. Peter’s reputation was sullied, and for quite some time he couldn’t find work in Vermont — as a journalist or anything else. It was a spectacularly low point for Peter, which made his “comeback” all the more remarkable.

He revived “Inside Track,” first in Vermont Times and finally, in 1995, in Seven Days. The state’s sole alternative weekly was the perfect fit for Peter’s fight-the-power sensibility, and the column continued to grow in popularity. For anyone interested in the state’s political goings-on, it was a must-read.

When the movie Michael Collins came out in 1996, Peter stunned many readers — and even close pals — with some fascinating family history: In a Seven Days feature story, he revealed that his own father —and his namesake uncle — had fought alongside Collins, the storied leader of the Irish Republican Army. “In the Dublin of 1920-21,” Peter wrote, “murder was the name of the game.” On a visit to Ireland in his adulthood, he’d met a man who called Frank Freyne “a fecking folk hero.”

Peter related strongly to his Irish heritage, though this antiwar child of the ’60s preferred words to weapons. As the books he amassed in his apartment showed, he was no stranger to poetry, fiction or theater — occasionally he even performed in plays by his friend Burlington writer Stephen Goldberg. His favorite musician, though, was a Montréal Jew-turned-Buddhist: Leonard Cohen. Peter was not above shamelessly using “Irishness” as an excuse for being temperamental, or for defending a “poetic” turn of phrase in his column to a skeptical editor.

Peter was also fond of Irish whiskey, and for years held court from a barstool at Leunig’s, Finnegan’s or Esox — that is, until he abandoned “the drink” and took up the bicycle in his last decade. For some years, he insisted on sporting a helmet in the headshot that accompanied “Inside Track.” He became a big proponent of the Burlington Bike Path, a Spandex-clad denizen of downtown.

The Internet brought “Inside Track” to the wider world — such as during Vermont’s groundbreaking civil-unions debate, and when national reporters clamored for Peter’s coverage of former Governor Howard (“Ho-Ho”) Dean’s presidential campaign. The web proved crucial for Peter in another way: Three months before he learned that he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in early 2007, Peter launched a blog called “Freyne Land” at sevendaysvt.com.

Though ostensibly an outlet for daily political coverage, the blog also turned autobiographical, chronicling Peter’s illness and treatment in sometimes graphic detail. Readers responded with an outpouring of love and support that moved him deeply. Peter was, after all, a man with many fans but only a few close friends. The experience of cancer and community changed him irrevocably; he began to lose interest in politics and in being “Mr. Inside Track.” In June 2008, he retired his column in Seven Days.

Peter finally allowed himself a much-deserved “vacation,” hanging out at his neighborhood coffeehouse, Speeder & Earl’s, and enjoying the companionship he found there. But the respite was all too short. On September 19, Peter was taken to the hospital with a raging strep infection that had spread to his brain and impaired his neurological and physiological functioning. He spent the next three months either in Fletcher Allen Health Care — he always called it “Mary Fanny” — or Starr Farm Nursing Center, winning over his caregivers along the way.

Peter was characteristically philosophical about his challenges. Ultimately, it was clear that he was done with this life’s journey and ready for the next one. Peter peacefully departed at 12:26 a.m. on Wednesday, January 7, in the company of friends. It was just hours before the first day of a new legislative session.

Peter was predeceased by his parents. He leaves behind his half-siblings, Maureen and Frank Freyne, along with many, many admirers and a legendary legacy in Vermont media.


it’s hard to see a tough guy fall
we’re all so delicate
we just hang on this life
by a spiders thread

there you lay
in room 466
unable to speak
looking pale like white marble

something pressing on
your brain
who knows how long
it was waiting

you the outspoken one
the one the politicoes feared
and the public excited to read

you were a bad bar drunk
loud, insulting and nasty
but you quit the booze
years ago
you quit the smokes
years ago

you got yourself a bicycle
and yes a helmet
to protect that active brain
the attack now
comes from inside

the inside track
the inside attack

you told me
you wanted change
politics no longer interested you
you were looking inside
the vast inside

so brave to give up
what you loved
and what
you were loved for

you gave up the bicycle
and helmet
you said
it no longer interested you

we exchanged
loving tough guy emails
you said you wanted
to write a play

there is no lesson
it gets each
and every one of us
sooner or later

yes it was hard to
walk into that hospital
yet again
hard to see you helpless
unable to speak

you knew i was there
and got it
we looked into
each others eyes
and both smiled

it could be me
or anyone of us
you grasped my hand
still strong

it is what it is
that’s the deal

you would have laughed
i got lost
trying to find the hospital
that i know and dread
only too well
we tough guys
fall hard
and get up at the
eight count

sometimes yes
sometimes not
so delicate is
that spider thread

no lesson
just caring
and yes
it does a tough guy
to care

we are not our brains
we are not our bodies
we are not our politics
we are not our philosophy
we are not our possessions
we are not our children
we are not the cancers
that eat our brains

the deal is no deal
the best we can do is care
a spider has a short delicate life

love, s

Stephen Goldberg wrote this poem shortly after Peter entered the hospital last September.