June 19, 2013
Surrounded by dozens of friends and family, bestselling author and St. Paul favorite Vince Flynn died early Wednesday. He was 47.
Flynn, author of the Mitch Rapp espionage series, died of prostate cancer at United Hospital. According to friend Kathy Schneeman, writing on the catholichotdish.com website, about 35 friends and family, including Flynn's wife, Lysa, were at the hospital when he died about 2 a.m.
Everyone who knew Flynn describes him as an engaging man who was loyal to his friends and to St. Paul -- even after he was famous enough to be interviewed by media across the country.
At Once Upon a Crime mystery bookstore in Minneapolis, co-owner Gary Schulze honored Flynn by painting a small teardrop on the chalk outline of a body at the front of the store where Flynn always signed books.
Rush Limbaugh remembered Flynn on his Wednesday radio show, saying it was "a day of really profound heartbreak."
Born into an Irish-Catholic family in St. Paul, Flynn began his writing career in 1997 with "Term Limits," which he self-published after learning he couldn't fulfill his dream of flying for the Marines because of childhood concussions.
Flynn announced in February 2011 he had stage III metastatic prostate cancer but was optimistic about his chances for survival. Because pain made it nearly impossible for him to sit and concentrate, he delayed publication of "Kill Shot" because he didn't want to "hand in a substandard book."
"Kill Shot" came out in February of 2012 and the 14th Rapp thriller, "The Survivor," will be published in fall.
The series features CIA counterterrorism operative Rapp, who will do whatever it takes to keep the nation safe, including shooting a few guys when necessary or breaking some kneecaps.
"With Vince's death we've lost a writer who has as good a handle on this nation's security interests as any current writer," said Joe Soucheray, Pioneer Press columnist on whose ESPN-1500 radio show Flynn introduced each of his new books.
"Vince got better with every book. He captured an angst in this country in a way a lot of big-time New York Times bestselling writers don't. He cut to the chase -- bad guys and good guys. His good guys are taking out bad guys. He was also a hail-fellow-well-met who never let his tremendous success influence him. He could drop more names with more charm than anyone I've ever met, and you never resented it."
IN HUMVEES IN BAGHDAD
Flynn finished the manuscript for "Term Limits" in 1996 and, after several unhappy experiences with New York agents and publishers, self-published with money from five investors who put up $15,000 to print 2,100 copies and cover marketing. Flynn was working as a bartender when he sold copies out of the trunk of his car. The book sold so well locally that he signed a $500,000 contract with Pocket Books to publish the hardcover edition. The mass-market paperback spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
He introduced Mitch Rapp in "Transfer of Power" (1999).
Readers and critics praised Flynn's accurate depictions of weapons and espionage, based on extensive research trips to Washington, D.C., where he fostered relationships with people in high places.
Flynn's Rapp series was sometimes criticized for leaning to the right politically, with Rapp described in one book as "a modern-day assassin who lived in a civilized country where such a term could never be used openly."
But Flynn made no apologies for Rapp's commitment to national security.
"Prior to 9/11 reviewers said that my plots were implausible, over the top," he said in 2004. "A fair amount of people doubted a menace was out there. Since then, people figured out that it's a war. My viewpoint is that you have to go on the offensive and take these guys out. A lot of people cringe hearing that, but the people we are up against are not meek."
Flynn's publisher said his novels "have been praised for their extensive research and prescient warnings about the rise of Islamic radical fundamentalism and terrorism. His books have been read by current and former presidents, foreign heads of state and intelligence professionals around the world and are admired for their versimilitude and imagination."
His tough books also resonated with troops serving in the Middle East.
When "Memorial Day" was published in 2004, Flynn told the Pioneer Press how elated he was when a CIA chief of operations said "you can't get into a Humvee in Baghdad without kicking a Vince Flynn paperback."
"That director is a former Marine responsible for operations in all the bad spots, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran," Flynn recalled. "When he jumped up, starts pumping my hand and tells me he's a huge fan of my books, I almost fainted. He'd just gotten back from Baghdad, where the guys sat around a bonfire, drinking beer, arguing about who should play Mitch Rapp in a movie."
Flynn was the fifth of seven children born to Terry and Kathleen Flynn. Terry taught English and coached basketball, football and baseball at St. Thomas Academy. Kathleen Flynn was one of the first female wildlife artists in the state.
The only cloud in Flynn's childhood in Apple Valley was his dyslexia, discovered when he was in fourth grade.
"You end up developing great verbal skills to make up for not being able to read," he told the Pioneer Press. "I didn't test well because I had a hard time forming sentences on essay questions. Even through college I was a horrible writer. Today it's not an issue unless I have to read aloud."
After graduating from St. Thomas Academy and the University of St. Thomas, Flynn worked for Kraft General Foods products, selling Jell-O and Stove Top Stuffing, and was in real-estate sales.
Flynn had a jolt when he was turned down by the Marines at 27: "That was the most sobering day of my life," he recalled. "Besides flying, my other passion was writing an espionage novel."
Flynn took a lot of heat during his bartending years at O'Gara's in the early 1990s when he was an aspiring novelist, according to owner Dan O'Gara.
"If you knew the guy, he could sell anything, and he sold himself," said O'Gara, who recalled that Flynn visited the Snelling Avenue institution even after his books were bestsellers.
"Vince never let his fame and fortune get the best of him," O'Gara recalled, adding that Flynn still let his friends give him a hard time at the bar: "He ended up getting the last laugh, though, because he was the one who made it big."
Booksellers were enthusiastic about Flynn's books and enjoyed his personality.
Janet Waller, community relations manager at the Barnes & Noble in Roseville, said Flynn always held his first reading from a new book at the store.
"We supported him back when he was self-published," Waller said, adding that Flynn always drew "massive crowds" that included Flynn's sisters, who teased him about his success.
Waller described Flynn's visits as "having your next door neighbor come, except he was handsome and famous. He deserved every ounce of success he got, and more."
The second store Flynn visited to introduce new books was Once Upon a Crime.
"Vince stayed loyal to us no matter what his publicist wanted him to do," co-owner Schulze recalled. "Even when he was unable to tour because of his health he came in to sign books."
Flynn, who was sometimes teased for attracting so many beautiful women during his bartending days, met his wife Lysa when they were "sort of set up" at a preseason Minnesota Vikings game by local TV anchor Frank Vascellaro.
Lysa, who grew up on a farm near Detroit Lakes, was a model who worked for the local Eleanor Moore Agency. She and Vince have three children. They lived for years in Edina and more recently in Sunfish Lake.
Flynn loved his family and his Catholic faith, according to longtime friend Schneeman.
"One of my favorite memories of Vince occured when I'd spot him in Murray Hall (at then-St. Thomas College) wearing his football jacket," she wrote at catholichotdish.com. "An entourage surrounded him -- always. Especially a harem of co-eds. But because he was such a people person, Vince always had time for the other folks walking by ..."
She recalls that after Mass at St. Joseph's Church in West St. Paul, Flynn "would help us chase our toddling twins or just hold them in order to give us a break. That's the kind of guy he was."
That sentiment was echoed by Carolyn Reidy, president/CEO of Simon & Schuster.
"As good as Vince was on the page ... he was even more engaging in person," she wrote Wednesday in a press release. "He had a unique ability to make everyone -- from those of us at Simon & Schuster ... to booksellers and retailers around the nation and, most of all, his readers, feel as if we were on his team and sharing in his life and his success.
"We will miss the Mitch Rapp stories that are classic modern thrillers, but we will miss Vince even more."
Mary Ann Grossmann can be reached at 651-228-5574.
Pioneer Press reporter John Brewer contributed to this story.