Since 2012, it has been my great honor to have been the editor and publisher for journalist and columnist Peter Blake, who began his career in Colorado journalism in 1968.
Peter died December 7 of this year after a devastating brain tumor was discovered in late October.
I will never forget how I found out. Peter called me from a hospital room, described for me the column he was currently working on, but apologized that it would be filed late because of the newly discovered health issue. Never deterred, he was planning on finishing that column as quickly as possible.
The story is emblematic of one of Peter’s great qualities: His work was a calling, and a genuine labor of love. That’s why he was still energetically producing great columns at the age of 80. Earlier this year, we both went to Colorado Springs to cover the state GOP convention. He beat me in and he left later than me.
He still thrilled to scoop. I don’t think anyone was as quickly on the Sports Authority naming-rights story as he was – January 25. Seemingly “smaller” scoops like this story on a contract between Waste Management and the City of Denver didn’t drive a lot of Facebook likes. I’d bet you it drove some heartburn on Bannock Street. And, in his opinion, it was the small scoop that could scarcely afford to be ignored.
Peter’s obituary at The Denver Post can be read here, but in this space, I’d like to talk about the man and his work, what made him unique, and why his passing is such a sad loss.
What I personally admired about Peter was his ability to gently skewer the powerful with humor. Not coincidentally, that’s generally the form of criticism that those in power can least withstand.
For example, my favorite line of all time from Peter was when he wrote about statutory changes that increased the legal damages that could be recovered in employment lawsuits.
On Jan. 1 state Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll joined the law firm of Bachus and Schanker, a hire they trumpeted at the top of their Web page. You know them by their omnipresent TV ads which proclaim, “Our passion is justice.”
The slogan is trademarked. Your passion is going to have to be less noble.
Your passion is going to have to be less noble!
“The thing about Peter is, he had this very independent mind, he was a very critical thinker. And he had this very dry, dry wit,” said John Temple, Peter’s last editor at the Rocky. “He had a way of poking through the pretenses that he saw from politicians and from others, but always in a very gentlemanly and friendly way,”
Temple noted that while Blake had the ability to skewer someone to the bone, he was never cruel, never mean spirited.
Another of Peter’s great traits, was, because he had been a Colorado institution for so long, stories with great depth of “institutional knowledge” came easy to him. When the Colorado body politic was heavily debating the virtues of a primary vote versus the caucus process, Peter produced a great (but brief) history on the topic that helped many people understand where Colorado had already been – generally a useful prerequisite before making the next decision.
Per “institutional knowledge” I specifically remember bumping into former Colorado GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams in January of 2015. Wadhams remarked on a column by Peter that pierced through the Veteran’s Administration by juxtaposing the VA’s bungled Aurora hospital project to the straightforward success of the new construction of the St. Joseph’s Hospital.
“Peter Blake was a great political reporter not only because he loved politics but also because he truly enjoyed and liked the people who struggled in the political trenches whether they be high elected officials or the most unknown political volunteers and operatives,” Wadhams told Complete Colorado. “But woe be unto the candidate or activist who engaged in hypocrisy or worse! They would find themselves the object of Pete’s devastating writing in his stories and columns. Peter Blake was a good man and a great journalist who chronicled so much of Colorado’s rich political history.”
As a final thought, I’ll note that Peter perfectly maneuvered a tightrope that not all journalists are able to walk, namely, he cast a cynical eye on the circumstances to try and unearth a deeper truth, yet he never allowed cynicism to infect his personality.
The perfect example of this would be the column in which he described the great battle between him and the Colorado Department of Revenue.
I got my balance-due letter from the department in mid-April. It began, “Our records indicate that you have underpaid your estimated tax and consequently have been assessed a penalty of [pause for effect here] $1.”
Hoo. A whole dollar. After explaining how estimated tax payments must be made if taxes exceed what’s withheld by $1,000 or more, the letter said, “The penalty has resulted in a reduction of your refund by $1. Your resulting refund of $19 has been processed.”
Later in the story…
Obviously a man of stern principle would have filed a protest immediately. But my principles are way too flaccid and I said to myself, “Self, surely it’s not worth your time to pursue $1 from the state, no matter how unjustified the seizure.”
That sort of sentiment is why republics fall. If the state is so dedicated to its income that it will spend $2 to get $1, shouldn’t the citizen be equally willing to spend $2 to get his $1 back?
After the diagnosis was known, I had the good fortune to spend quality time with Peter. On one November day in particular, we sat outside his home, sipped ice water, and just talked. He told me stories of covering Jimmy Carter in Denver circa 1974. We talked about Robert Moses, the upcoming election, John Temple, the Rocky, and so many other things. For me – and I’m borrowing an idea from Kurt Vonnegut – it’s a moment trapped in amber.
I have other thoughts to share before I abandon this work of art, but those other things will be said as a brief eulogy at Peter’s services on December 17. I’m heartbroken that I cannot attend those services because of family travel plans that simply cannot be altered. However, Peter’s long-time colleague and friend Vincent Carroll will read that eulogy on my behalf, and I will post it here as an update after the services.
Until then, I give you thoughts again from Temple, and also from Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute.
“It’s a loss because he’s representative of the kind of reporter that it’s unlikely will be again, because he was able to dedicate himself to Colorado politics for 50 years. And he was able to make his home at a local paper where he contributed so much, and that’s not going to be the story of this generation of journalists,” Temple said.
The passing of Peter Blake is a heartbreaking analogy for the passing of local news journalism. With him goes a generation of reporters who brought political news and commentary on the issues that impact us most – the state and local level. Pete’s work was unique and powerful. Not only did he bring us news and analysis of topics that only an inside few establishment types had, and rarely wanted exposed, his simple, direct style was a lesson in common sense in every article he wrote. Simply, he is one of the greats.
On a personal level, the man was as gentle, straight-forward and modest as his writing. We will never see another like him. — Jon Caldara
Tribute from Lynn Bartels, former colleague at the Rocky Mountain News,
2007 Senate Resolution honoring Peter Blake,
Remembrance from Colorado Peak Politics,
FULL LIST of columns filed by Peter Blake with Complete Colorado.