Inspiration and Grief: Vince Flynn, Gone too Soon

June 21, 2013

The news arrived by text early Wednesday morning. After a 2-½ year battle, St. Paul author Vince Flynn had succumbed to cancer. Though I didn’t know him well, the news hit me hard, for like many, I was praying for a miracle for the man who had a track record for beating the odds.

Our bookcase holds every one of Vince’s page-turning, intrigue-filled novels about Mitch Rapp, the fictional CIA counter-terrorism operative, who is as tenacious as the man who invented him. Vince’s success was a testament to his doggedness. After scores of rejections by publishers, he self-published his first novel, “Term Limits,” in 1997, then secured a lasting relationship with Simon and Schuster.

We had many mutual friends in the Twin Cities, several of whom were so close to Vince he named characters after them. Though our families lived just a nine-iron apart, our overlapping lives never intersected.

Each time I mentioned to a mutual friend how eager I was to meet Vince Flynn, I received the same tepid response. Vince coveted his privacy. His friends respected that. No introductions were forthcoming.

Fate changed that. One spring morning in 2010, our paths finally crossed at St. Thomas Academy, Vince’s alma mater. At my behest, a mutual friend (who apparently was not read in on the privacy directive) introduced us. Literally cornered by me, Vince was too gracious to refuse an interview.

On a sunny April afternoon, we met at the Mendota Heights Caribou. When Vince stepped out of his vehicle, sunglasses obscuring his eyes, I couldn’t help but smirk. Of course a guy who writes about fighting terrorists would drive a black Range Rover with tinted windows!

We began to chat and I immediately sensed I had pulled him away from work on his latest novel. Indeed, he said, I had.

Knowing that just a few months earlier both my husband and a dear friend had died of heart attacks in their 50s, he acknowledged that in the scheme of things, leaving his writing to meet with me was a minor disruption in a life that was going well for him.

In the hour that followed we engaged in an unexpectedly personal conversation, before he dashed off to pick up his daughters at school. He spoke of trying to maintain a normal life as the father of three and about how difficult it was to strike a balance between his public success and the privacy his family coveted. But his life was good and he felt blessed.

His one regret, he said, was that he had not met his wife, Lysa, sooner.

Vince spoke candidly about his dyslexia, the topic of the column I wrote about him then. How does a man with significant reading challenges write a series of factually complex novels, I wondered? Discipline, tenacity, and deep faith, he said, derived from two important lessons from his father: laziness is the greatest sin; and quitters never win. Instead of allowing the dyslexia to limit him, he formulated a strategy to not just overcome it, but to use it to his advantage. He became a voracious reader and prolific writer.

When we met again in October of 2010 to discuss “American Assassin,” he surprised me by inquiring about my family, recalling details I assumed he would have forgotten. He then spoke passionately about his respect for and kinship with the men and women in uniform and the clandestine services who featured so prominently in his novels. He abhorred political correctness and the hypocrisy of politicians who publicly condemned CIA practices but privately condoned them and was not shy about asserting those positions in his work.

It wasn’t long before the stunning news of his cancer diagnosis was revealed and his treatment ensued. Publication of “The Last Man” was postponed from October 2011 to February 2012, which is when we last met.

At Caribou Coffee once again, our shared experiences with cancer dominated the conversation. He had completed his initial treatment and felt better than he had in years. He had his eye on the future — graduations and marriages, and grandchildren, as did I. He was not a man who liked to disappoint others, he said. He was determined to embrace each day and to conquer the cancer.

Though he spoke optimistically about his prognosis, I was wary. Before long, I heard through the grapevine the cancer was back but he was fighting it aggressively — and privately. Details were surprisingly scarce about a well-known guy in a town aptly known as “St. Small.”

Though he remained “Vinnie” to those with whom he had long-standing relationships, over the years he forged new connections with presidents, media moguls and Washington insiders who were vital sources for his work. But locally he remained a champion for students who shared his struggles in school, was an ardent supporter of the military, and a devoted member of the Catholic Church. The reverberations of his death will be far reaching.

Vince’s life and his success are an inspiration to many. His premature death leaves three children without a father and his wife without the man who so adored her. I pray they share Vince’s deep faith and that those who love and support them in these early days of overwhelming grief remain a lasting presence in their lives. It will be a difficult journey, easier if not navigated alone.