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
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
you quit the smokes
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
you were loved for
you gave up the bicycle
it no longer interested you
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
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
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
and get up at the
so delicate is
that spider thread
it does a tough guy
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
Stephen Goldberg wrote this poem shortly after Peter entered the hospital last September.
A memorial celebration of Peter Freyne’s life will be held on Thursday, January 29, at Burlington’s Union Station, 6 p.m. Space is limited. Parking is available in the lot at the north end of the building. Attendees will have a chance to share their memories of Peter at the event.
When we announced Peter Freyne’s death on Blurt, the Seven Days staff blog, we began receiving comments almost immediately — journalists, politicians, fans and former coworkers chimed in with condolences and stories. Here are some excerpts. For a complete list, see the post Peter Freyne, 1949-2009.
“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.”
— Governor Jim Douglas
“Peter’s gone now, so I won’t be able to have fleeting conversations with him, about nothing important, on Church Street. I won’t be able to act with him in another Goldberg play. I won’t be able to drink scotch with him and witness his anger, or was it just enthusiasm? I will, however, never forget him.”
— Allan Nicholls, film professor, Burlington College
“This loss hits close to home for me. I’ve worked with Peter since becoming a journalist in Vermont 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.”
— from a blog post by Sue Allen, editor,Barre-Montpelier Times Argus
“Peter pissed me off many times. There can be no higher praise for a journalist.”
— Ed Shamy, editor and publisher, The County Courier
“I met Peter for the first time not long after he arrived from Chicago. Even back then I knew that Peter was a special breed of reporter. He pressed me for everything I knew about local politics and soon invited me to try print. I wrote several stories for him while he was the editor at Vermont’s first full-scale news-and-arts weekly, the Vanguard Press. Peter and I had our political differences, but I will always remember him as a great reporter.”
— Andy Potter, reporter, WCAX
“My first job out of college was working at Seven Days. When I left Seven Days to work for Gov. Dean, I could still look forward to seeing Peter at the governor’s weekly press conference.
I’ve collected a lot of Freyne stories over the years, but here’s a classic: The setting was the governor’s weekly press conference during a legislative session in the early 2000s. The legislature was working on legalizing medical marijuana, and one of the governor’s complaints was that the delivery method of smoking was carcinogenic. A reporter asked what he would suggest, and the Gov. said seriously: ‘How about suppositories’.
Silence swept over the press, and then Freyne was heard to quietly predict the headline: ‘Dean to Legislature: Stick It Up Your Ass.’”
— Charity R. Clark
“Unafraid is the best word I can think of to describe him. I told him once he loved to poke the bear. He laughed. Too bad this. Very sad news indeed. So few people left to poke the bears.”
— Geoffrey Gevalt, founder and editor of the Young Writers Project, former managing editor, Burlington Free Press
“Marcelle and I have lost a good friend, and Vermont has lost its own version of the legendary Mike Royko. 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.”
— Senator Patrick Leahy
“In June 2001, I picked up my phone at the City of South Burlington. ‘Hi, this is Peter Freyne. Tell me, are you really a communist?’ It was, as the saying goes, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Peter couldn’t walk away from the issues; he cared compulsively. His exasperating qualities were also his most endearing, uniquely and irreplaceably Peter. Give ’em hell in the hereafter, friend. We’re counting on you.”
— Juli Beth Hinds
“I’m remembering so many wonderful, quirky, challenging conversations with Peter, always reading him first when I picked up Seven Days, how special I felt the couple of times he mentioned me in a column, his hilarious presentation at the Green Mountain Writers Conference a few years ago when he gave us the backstory to some of his most famous political skewerings. I use several of his columns in class, especially when I’m trying to teach such intangibles as attitude, voice and confidence. Peter had them all. He was one in a million.”
— Yvonne Daley, former reporter, Rutland Daily Herald, director of the Green Mountain Writers Conference.
“Peter had a twinkle in his eye that indicated he was not afraid to speak or write the truth. I will miss that twinkle.”
— Robert Sand, Windsor County State’s Attorney
“Peter had that rare and enviable gift of being able to make you laugh and cry at the same time. He was the forerunner to Tina Fey, skewering the powerful with devastating wit. Vermont is smaller without Peter’s humor, his writing and him.”
— David Goodman, writer
“It is my hope that the nurses of FAHC will always remember Peter Freyne.
When we organized our union, he knew most of us did not live in the world of politics, scandal and hot gossip — the world he so loved to write about. There wasn’t much ‘dirt’ on us, but we did take on the big corporate hospital and their union-busters. He attended our press conferences, listened to our struggles, and at times he weaved our stories into his column. He told us that we might not like everything we read — he could be a harsh critic with a sharp wit and a razor-like edge to his words — and we knew it. We would wait for the Wednesday drop-off and nervously read ‘Inside Track’ to see what he wrote. He was always kind to us.
When he was no longer doing his Seven Days gig, I bumped into him at Speeder’s on Pine Street. He told me he had a secret. I listened intently. He made me think it was something BIG! He said he always had a soft spot for the FAHC nurses . . . but hated seeing us at the hospital. And then he told me that we ‘dropped the ball in negotiations because you didn’t ask for wireless Internet in every patient room.’ He thought it was outrageous!
I hated seeing Peter in the hospital, too, but that was the only time I hated seeing Peter.”
— Jennifer Henry, RN
“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 a blog post by Sam Hemingway, Burlington Free Press
“I was working as the Director of the King Street Youth Center, and the Center (as neighborhood folks called it) was very involved in organizing the King Street neighborhood on issues that really mattered to the people who lived there. The Vanguard was just starting up, and their new reporter came by to report on the environmental issue that was impacting neighborhood kids who played around the barge canal, where most of them fished and went swimming. People organized, and the end result was environmental action that created the Superfund site.
The neighborhood was tough, and so was the reporter, Peter Freyne. We’ve already missed Peter now for some time, but his death really saddened me. We’ll miss you, Peter.”
— Michael Monte, former Burlington CEDO director
“Peter could be infuriating, and he would say the same about me. I remember what it would feel like when Peter would pick up on something and ask a few questions with a look that was not a ‘twinkle’ — that sounds way too innocent. His eyes bent and reflected light back at you in a way that made you know you were cooked, or at the very least, you were at risk of losing yet another layer of protective veneer.
My friends have often told me that my skin is not thick enough for politics. And, if my skin was supposed to become thick enough that Peter’s acerbic derision and teasing monikers wouldn’t hurt, it’s true, it was never thick enough. But to develop skin that thick would require that you just stop listening and that would be a big mistake. Peter’s words could hurt. They wouldn’t have if they didn’t contain so much truth.
I miss Peter Freyne. I would like to have a conversation with him, especially now that it wouldn’t end up in whatever he was working on next.”
— Gaye Symington, former Vermont House Speaker
“Peter Freyne was a gift to Vermont. The power and punch of Peter’s writing were 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.”
— Congressman Peter Welch
“As much as Mike Royko might have been Peter’s hero, Peter was my journalistic hero. From the early 1980s, when I had the good fortune to come to Vermont to become the head of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, to my current work as managing editor of Business People-Vermont magazine, Peter’s terrier-like approach to the news and his consummate journalistic integrity earned him a high place in my esteem. Although our paths crossed only once or twice a year (the last time I saw him was at the 2008 Daisies), he always had a smile and a wisecrack. Godspeed, Peter.”
— Virginia Lindauer Simmon
“No journalist can ever, will ever fill his penetrating style with elected officials. I’ve lost a friend, a constituent and a look-alike-on-a-bike.”
— Burlington City Councilor Bill Keogh
“Some years ago, when I served in the Vermont legislature, I noticed with amusement how eager I and my colleagues were to grab the hot-off-the-presses copies of Seven Days on Wednesday afternoons. We would immediately rip it open to ‘Inside Track’ to see who was getting gored that week — it was almost as much of an honor to be ridiculed by Peter’s incisive wit as it was to be praised by him. I remember the glow I felt when Peter reacted to a speech I made defending civil unions by commenting, ‘Rep. Jordan had it exactly right . . .’
Some years before that, when I was a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, I happened to be in the governor’s ceremonial office when Peter made a highly offensive, sexually harassing comment to reporter Betsy Liley of the Free Press. This was shocking — I considered Betsy a friend and I knew from my own experience how women at the statehouse were sometimes treated by men who seemed to think they owned the place. The thing of it is, I don’t think Peter meant that remark quite the way it came out and I also don’t think he meant to hurt Betsy, who was one of the better reporters of the day. It seemed to just roll out of his mouth before his brain had a chance to rein it in. He had to step down as Gov. Kunin’s press secretary and served his deserved time in purgatory for it — I think Gov. Kunin was right when she observed he was more successful as a critic of state government than as a representative of it.
But over the years, I came to respect the thoroughness with which he would track down a story and his courage in asking questions no one else would ask. Many wrongs were eventually addressed and even righted because Peter persisted — his tenacity in uncovering the mess at Fletcher Allen a few years back comes to mind. Even after I left politics and, ultimately, Vermont, I religiously read Peter’s column so I keep up with what was really going on under the Golden Dome and in the halls of power. Although he could be biting, he was never bitter, and he did all Vermonters a great service by holding Vermont politicians and policy makers to high ethical standards with wit and panache.”
— Henrietta Jordan
“I was saddened to read about Peter’s passing and it has rekindled many memories I have of the guy, but one in particular from a long time ago. I met Peter soon after moving to Burlington in 1981. I was working at City Hall, in the Planning Office, and Peter was working at making the transition from radio news to print journalism.
One afternoon Peter stopped by City Hall for no particular reason, and in the course of our conversation, he let on that the Vermont Vanguard had finally purchased a story he was pursuing. Looking back, I don’t recall the topic and it really isn’t important. What I do remember is the wonderful sense of pride and humility Peter expressed when I congratulated him. On the one hand, he was rightfully excited that a byline and paycheck now confirmed his identity as a print journalist. On a deeper level, Peter also understood he was joining a storied fraternity he had long admired. For Peter, journalism was a vocation as opposed to a career path, and he was able to convey the distinction to me in a few sentences. It was the kind of innocent moment one would not typically associate with Peter, and one I will not forget.”
— John Caulo
“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.”
— Senator Bernie Sanders
Public figures in Vermont knew they had “arrived” when they earned a nickname from Peter Freyne. Of course, they had to do something to land in his column, “Inside Track,” too. Not everyone wanted to see their name in boldface, but every Wednesday when Seven Days hit the streets, politicos and other readers alike were eager to see who Peter was skewering that week. The following is far from a complete list, but should suffice to push some buttons on Peter’s behalf. (Titles are those held when he was writing about the individuals and not necessarily current.)
Some non-people monikers: