Mourning an icon Officials, residents reflect on life of late political columnist Peter Weiss

Friends, colleagues and readers of local political columnist Peter Weiss, 60, a Jersey Journal editor whose "Political Whirl" column both reflected and shaped the often stormy political climate of Hudson County, shared their memories of him last week after he died Sept. 6 at the New York University Medical Center in Manhattan due to complications from heart surgery.

Over the span of his 33-year career at the Journal, Weiss had become one of the most visible and trusted presences in the civic life of Hudson County. Regularly placed on the front page, his "Political Whirl" column appeared weekly for many years, providing local residents with an inside look at what political life is like in a county notorious for its cut-throat environment.

After rival newspaper the Hudson Dispatch closed in the early 1990s, the main newspapers covering Hudson County were the daily Jersey Journal and the Hudson Reporter chain of weeklies, making Weiss’ voice one of the most prominent in local journalism.

As the news of his death spread throughout political communities from Union City to Washington D.C., the sheer number of heartfelt remembrances and words of praise being brought into the public arena proved that Weiss was more than just a reporter and columnist. To the many people whose lives he touched, Weiss was an icon and institution.

"He was the institutional memory of Hudson County politics, and everyone checked in from across the state," said Paul J. Byrne, a friend of Weiss and a prominent county-wide political consultant. "Peter had been around long enough to have seen it all."

Journalistic model

A consummate newspaperman, Weiss kept his finger on the pulse of whatever was happening in the county, whether it was happening publicly or behind the scenes. This connectedness, in addition to his already deep and expansive knowledge of local political history, made him a unique and invaluable resource.

"I never envied anyone so much as I envied him – his grace, his humor, his wit, and how pure he was," said Jim Kennelly, a former political columnist for the Hudson Reporter who moved to the Journal and currently serves as communications director for the county executive’s office. "This is a terrible loss for Hudson County."

"We would both see the same board and the same players, but while I was swinging my battle-axe prose, he was taking aim with his rapier wit and putting it right in the perfect spot," Kennelly added, his voice full of emotion. "I always wondered how he did it. He was terrific. When I got a job on the Journal with him, he was gracious and showed me the ropes. He didn’t have to be kind. He just was."

A Brooklyn native who grew up in the borough’s Sheepshead Bay section, Weiss attended Erasmus Hall High School and Long Island University. He worked at the New York Post and Long Island Press before settling at the Jersey Journal in 1970.

Upon arriving in Jersey City, Weiss made an immediate, indelible impression on his readership, said colleagues and sources. Described as an intuitive and keen observer of people, Weiss was, his friends said, fascinated by how the political arena shaped its participants, from both the initial motivations and decisions to the actions and final outcomes.

"He would make people think," said Kennelly. "Peter always knew that today’s god was tomorrow’s goat. That came from his years of experience. He was never bitter. Many people get sour towards the end of their career. Not him. He enjoyed the back-and-forth. The work is what he was. But he was pure in a world that was not. And he went out of his way to be other people’s mentors and was always committed to his paper."

In 1996, Weiss married Journal Managing Editor Margaret Schmidt. Weiss, who sat at a desk facing his wife in the middle of the Journal’s newsroom, would regularly help Schmidt by assigning and editing stories submitted by Journal correspondents.

Weiss was also a big fan of dogs, and once put politics aside to devote an entire column to mourning the death of a stray dog whom he and Schmidt had adopted.

Living in his work

Weiss’ indestructible sense of objectivity set him apart from others who kept consistent contact with county movers and shakers, colleagues said. Described by Jersey Journal editor Judy Locorriere as the paper’s "integrity standard," Weiss was able to maintain a degree of detachment from what was happening in the volatile world around him.

The commitment to journalistic ethics didn’t stop Weiss from forming tight bonds with the many people who had come to unquestionably trust him. Sitting at his desk in blue jeans and a baseball cap, Weiss would exuberantly field calls from both local officials and sources, stopping only to cover local events or to briskly jab at his keyboard. Otherwise, his phone was incessantly ringing.

His closest friends were people he met through his work as a reporter, and although some of them recalled moments of job-related friction, Weiss’ charm and affability consistently won out.

"I used to scream and yell at him about coverage and he would laugh at me and say ‘When are we having lunch?’ " said Art Delo, a longtime friend who met Weiss when Delo was working as the press agent for former Jersey City Mayor Paul Jordan. "The professional relationship was one thing, and it somehow never affected our [personal relationship]."

County Freeholder Maurice Fitzgibbons, who could be counted among Weiss’ closer friends in public life, also praised Weiss’ skill at managing complex relationships with friends who sometimes doubled as journalistic subjects.

"Our relationship went beyond politics," Fitzgibbons said. "Peter was always professional. He knew I was an elected official and I always knew he was a reporter, and in that regard he maintained a professional distance. But I went to him for political advice and if I had to make a decision. He was always a comfort."

Trusted friend

County consultant Byrne was among one of the few Hudson County political figures invited to Weiss’ wedding, and his relationship with Weiss goes back to his beginnings at the Journal. He remembered a particular incident in 1981 when at a press conference, then-Jersey City mayoral candidate Wally Sheil, in front of several people, openly asked whether Weiss had been "taken care of," or bribed, as part of the campaign. Weiss, known even then for his remarkable honesty, took this with humor.

"’I guess you won’t try to [have a press conference with Shiel] again,’ Peter told me," Byrne said. "We never did."

Byrne had a remarkably close relationship with Weiss, speaking with him two or three times a week. But it was the lunches they shared, Byrne remembered, and the ludicrous efforts both men exerted in trying to keep to a diet.

"We had hundreds of lunches together over the years," Byrne said. "It was always the same song and dance. We always went to a Jewish deli. One of us ordered pastrami, the other corned beef. We gave each other half, telling ourselves that we were having half a healthy meal and that the Dr. Brown’s soda would dissolve all the fat and knish."

And nearly always at the end of the meal, they succumbed to splitting a piece of cake.

"He wouldn’t let me buy him lunch and I could never convince him to buy mine, so we split the check," Byrne recalled.

Joe Lauro, whose public relations firm did business with the county for years and still represents many municipalities and other public bodies, recalled Weiss as a beat reporter. Lauro was working for the Hudson Dispatch, based in North Hudson, and Weiss worked for the Jersey Journal.

"I had just started, and the administration was trying to sell me on a story," Lauro said. "Pete pulled me aside and told me not to fall for it; they had tried to sell him the same story the day before."

In echoing others’ sentiments, Lauro said Weiss had numerous sides to his personality, but never compromised his position as a reporter.

"Peter had a pen of steel, but a heart of gold," he said. "He would give advice to people."

In addition to his work and his devotion to his wife, sports and horse-racing were also counted as some of Weiss’ passions, friend Art Delo said.

"One thing we’ve bonded around was the racetrack," Delo said. "That was our original connection. We went to Monmouth [Park Racetrack] for the most part, but we also did the New York tracks. He was a good handicapper, and part of our continuing legend was him making fun of our handicapping. One of the things he used to do, and it became part of the ritual we had, was I’d read the form the night before and the first thing he’d do when we got to the track is look at my program and immediately cross out anything I was betting on. It became part of the gag, even if he thought the horse would win."

"We had the kind of friendship where I would go weeks and sometimes months without seeing him, but he was the one guy who I knew I could go to if I needed something," Delo added. "I could call him and in a minute he would be there. He refused to give in to sadness, and everything was handled with a one-liner."

Grieving community

According to Weiss’ friends, his habit of responding to everything with a dry joke or witticism was a ruse probably intended to hide his enormous sense of compassion and feeling.

"He worked so hard at looking cynical and hard-bitten, but I guess he viewed it as part of the job," Delo said. "I think for some reason he never wanted to admit how sentimental, or whatever, he was. All the words being thrown around [the community in response to his passing] would have embarrassed him terribly."

Added Delo, "He spent a lot of time trying to not let people know who he was, but I’ve been amazed at the reaction [from the community at large]. Just the size of the reaction! In spite of his attempt to build an image of detachment and cynicism, it’s amazing how many people sensed he was a sweetheart. Boy, would Peter have blanched at that. But it just captures who he was."

Weiss’ colleagues agree, saying that his genuine modesty and unimposing physical presence in no way corresponded to either the generosity of his heart, the perceptive faculties of his mind or the unbridled power of his talent.

"While he gave every appearance of being a simple kind of guy, he was, in truth, a real intellectual and a sophisticated human being," said Journal Assistant Managing Editor Patricia Donnelly. "He was a great writer. He really was. And a superb human being."


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