Peter Freyne never missed a deadline in the 13 years he worked for Seven Days. He delivered his political column, "Inside Track," every Tuesday by 4 p.m. and was never subtle about it. Shortly after emailing his article, Freyne would show up at the office to answer questions, argue, check last-minute facts and, depending on his mood, terrorize our staff. His column was the last thing we squeezed into the paper before sending it to press.
So it’s ironic — not to mention premature and terribly sad — that Peter Freyne left this Earth early on a Wednesday. After battling cancer, seizures and a strep infection that spread to his brain, he died peacefully at Fletcher Allen Health Care at 12:26 a.m. today — six hours after our weekly deadline. Did he have a hand in the timing of his final departure, knowing the news would break just after the paper went to bed? We wouldn’t put it past him to go out with a poke.
Freyne, 59, came out of the bar-stool school of journalism, along with his hero, Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko. He never went to school to learn to be a political columnist, but brought his considerable and diverse life experiences to a fun and informative “Inside Track” that originated in the Vanguard Press, Burlington’s original alt weekly, in the late ’80s. Freyne was the rare reporter who could skewer a politician in print and have a drink with him two days later — until he gave up drinking. Many of his “victims” became his sources — and in some cases, friends.
Vermont journalism has been a lot less lively since he retired last June. Here's a video that Eva Sollberger made of Freyne right after that, when Seven Days readers once again named him the state's "Best Print Journalist" in our annual Daysies survey.
His passing marks the end of an era. He may have planned that, too.
Please direct media inquiries to Seven Days Co-editor Pamela Polston, 864-5684, firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE: We'll post information about a memorial service here and in the newspaper next week. Thanks for all of your messages.
From Governor Jim Douglas:
"Early this morning, longtime political columnist Peter Freyne peacefully passed away. I’ve known Peter for many years. Peter was a determined journalist who had a way about him that was uniquely his. You knew where you stood with him – a trait that made all public officials examine their positions more closely. Peter will be missed."
"This loss hits close to home for me. I've worked with Peter since becoming a journalist in Vermont in in the '80s, and would like to think I've learned a great deal from watching him dig like a terrier for tips, follow up on leads with a tenacity I could only admire, and hold every public official's feet to a ferocious fire."
"Many Vermont bloggers look at Peter as a kind of godfather. He did the kind of journalism that we aspire to: irreverent, insightful analysis, personal perspective and voice, and a commitment to progressive values."
"There’s been no reason to say so until now, but this blog began with a kind note from Freyne, about a VPR commentary I wrote on Vermont’s role in opposing the Bush Administration. He ended that note with the word 'Bravo!' And that one word of praise, coming as it did from that one particular guy, was enough to make me think I had it in me to write about politics on a daily basis."
From Senator Patrick Leahy:
"Marcelle and I have lost a good friend, and Vermont has lost its own version of the legendary Mike Royko.
Though Peter was born in the age of manual typewriters, in recent years he took to blogs like a 20-year-old. Flatlander reporters sought him out first when they wanted to understand our state. He brought insight to some of the biggest stories of our time here in Vermont – the civil unions debate, the Dean campaign, the Jeffords switch and the war in Iraq.
He was courageous in his fight with cancer and helped many others facing similar battles.
He knew the difference between healthy skepticism and hollow cynicism, and his reporting helped make Vermont better.
"I'll miss Peter, even though I was among the many who he sometimes skewered in his column over the years. I'll miss him because, while I took issue with some of his tactics, there was nothing phony about the guy. He was a passionate political junkie, which I admired, and it was always great theater watching him use the press conference format to ask a politician an uncomfortable question, just to see how the person would react."
From Senator Bernie Sanders:
"Peter Freyne was one of the most remarkable individuals I ever met, and I am going to miss him very much. As a friend and occasional antagonist for over 25 years, I knew Peter to be brilliant, honest, courageous and unusually observant. In addition, he was prickly, annoying, and utterly relentless in getting the information that he wanted.
"I first encountered Peter when I became mayor of Burlington in 1981. While he was supportive of many of my initiatives, it was not unusual for us to have strong differences of opinion, to say the least, about some of the decisions I made as mayor.
"A small memory of mine reveals his quirky but perceptive personality. I remember an event that I held as mayor to talk about our success in repaving Burlington’s streets. We served sandwiches. Peter ate about half of them. In his next column, he commented about the absurdity of serving sandwiches at such an event. He was right, as he was on so many other occasions.
"He was also right about bigger issues, including the war in Iraq, which he felt very strongly about. At almost every press conference that he attended, he in one way or another made clear his disgust with the war.
"He was also right in being the lead reporter in Vermont prepared to take on the scandal several years ago at Fletcher Allen Hospital, which ended with the CEO receiving a prison sentence.
"I think it is fair to say that Peter was an institution in the state of Vermont. He will be missed by thousands of his readers, he will be missed by his many friends, and he will most assuredly be missed by me."
From Congressman Peter Welch:
"Peter Freyne was a gift to Vermont.
"The power and punch of Peter’s writing was rivaled only by his passion for justice and his contempt for pomposity. Those of us who occasionally found ourselves on the receiving end of his acerbic observations rarely considered it an enjoyable experience. But behind the force of his personality and his hard-hitting reportorial instincts, it was clear to all who knew him that his spirit was as gentle as his soul was poetic.
"Peter often seemed to know more about what was going on in Vermont politics than did the state’s politicians – including this one. But it was his understanding of the human condition that set him apart from most.Though he had a deep passion for making the world a better place, he understood all too well the foibles and limitations of the human spirit.
"Peter will truly be missed."
From Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin:
"I am deeply saddened by the news of Peter Freyne’s death. Peter was an insightful and witty journalist who filled an important niche in Vermont’s press corp. Peter could always be counted on to ask the probing question that would make any public official squirm, find the lead to an exclusive story, and keep Vermonters up to date and smiling with his weekly column. Peter was a great friend and will be sorely missed."
From Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith:
"It was with sorrow that I heard the news today of Peter Freyne’s death. Peter brought unique insight to the state and its politics. He used his humor and investigative drive to connect Vermont readers with the inner workings of their government. I am happy to have known Peter and I know he will be missed by many."
UPDATE 1/8/09: Many media outlets have reported on Peter's passing. Here are some of the links we've collected:
Journalist Freyne dies at 59 (by Sam Hemingway at The Burlington Free Press)
A Rememberence of Peter Freyne (by Ross Sneyd at Vermont Public Radio)
Longtime Vt. political writer Freyne dies, 59 (by Dan Barlow at the Times Argus)
The Times Argus also published an editorial about Peter.
UPDATE 1/13/09: Here's a video tribute from CCTV.