Pete DeCoursey, one of a kind

    When I heard last week that Pete DeCoursey had died, it hit me like a punch to the chest.I knew he’d gone to the hospital for lung surgery recently, but he’d been battling pancreatic cancer for so many years that I’d just come to believe that he would beat it, that he’d always be around.Pete was a friendly giant of a man and a journalistic giant in Harrisburg, where he stalked the capitol as bureau chief for the online service Capitolwire. He knew more about the workings of state politics and government than just about anybody, and was relentlessly devoted to learning more.Every December, when the state’s politicians descend on midtown Manhattan for the three days of schmoozing known as the Pennsylvania Society, the working journalists usually assemble for a Friday night dinner to share some laughs and things we can’t in print or broadcast.Pete was missing this year, and you couldn’t help but notice. We traded Pete stories, but I didn’t hear anybody speak as if Pete were on his death bed. Like I said, you just figured he’d always be around.It occurred to me at some point that maybe two thirds of the reporters at the table had been mentored in some way by Pete. He was generous about sharing his knowledge and insight, and always encouraged aspiring journalists.I got to know him a different way.A guy you noticedMore than 20 years ago, this guy showed up at the Sunday pick-up softball game that was a treasured ritual of my life. He was tall, probably 6 foot seven, with a noticeably large, round head and a close-cropped red beard.This guy, Pete, had a gift for annoying the players on the opposite team. It wasn’t something he tried to do. It was a gift.He’d smash a line hard line drive for a double, then, with the infielders playing back the next time he came up, hit a dribbler toward second and chug safely to first, leaving the second baseman steaming.And he’d keep up a steady banter during the game that would get under his opponents’ skins – nothing nasty or profane, just the kind of cleverly informed needling that would leave them talking to, and doubting themselves.Years later many governors of this state would recognize the DeCoursey treatment, as Pete would get onto a subject and simply refuse to let go until he got a meaningful response.When Pete had a question, he was a dog after a bone.Finding his craftPete was a Philly guy, and back in the softball days, he worked for politicians. He was an aide to City Councilwoman Ann Land (later defeated by Michael Nutter on his way up the ladder), and he worked for Democratic Congressman Bob Borski, a good guy.After a few years he started missing some Sunday softball games, and I heard it was because he’d started a new career as a reporter for the Reading Eagle.Figured. Pete wasn’t the kind of guy who would be satisfied telling only half the story, the way you have to in politics.He spent maybe six years at the Eagle, then became a capitol reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot and eventually the heart and soul of Capitolwire.I’d see Pete over the years, and every time I did I would learn something I didn’t know. Afterward I might be a little irritated that I hadn’t made the connection Pete had between some politician’s position on a policy issue and his relationship with a union boss.Kind of like the old days, playing third base and having Pete pull a ground ball past me, just out of reach for a key hit. Damn that guy – how does he do that?I last saw Pete a couple of months ago, when we both covered State Treasurer Rob McCord’s campaign kick-off for governor. Pete had already seen McCord in Harrisburg, but he’d made the drive to McCord’s Philadelphia event because he knew he would see and talk to different people, learn more, connect more.He worked the room every minute he could, asking questions and soaking up information. As I said, he always wanted to learn more.I’ll miss Pete, and I’m sure the capitol just won’t be the same for a while.But I know people in Harrisburg will be trading stories about him for a long time.There’s a memorial service for Pete in Philadelphia on Saturday, Jan. 11 at 11 a.m. at Christ Church & St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, at the corner of Tulpehocken & McCallum Streets. The family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to a scholarship fund for Pete’s children, Ben and Ellie. Donations can be sent in their name to Pete’s address: 157 Lucknow Rd., Harrisburg, PA 17110.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.