Presidents and spies wanted to know his secrets. Millions of eager readers snapped up his tales of military espionage. But to friends like WCCO anchor Frank Vascellaro, he was “just Vinny from St. Paul.”
Twin Cities author Vince Flynn, who overcame dyslexia and various disappointments to conquer the bestseller lists, died Wednesday after a 2½-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 47.
His fans included former president Bill Clinton and then-president George W. Bush, who summoned him twice for private audiences. “He wanted to know where I got my information,” Flynn said afterward.
His thrillers, centered on a CIA-trained assassin, captured the essence of the war on terror. All told, his 14 books have sold more than 15 million copies in the United States. A movie based on his recent novel “American Assassin” is in the works at CBS Films, with Bruce Willis signed on as co-star.
That success is even more impressive considering Flynn was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child.
“The last thing I ever thought I’d be then is a writer,” he once told the Star Tribune.
A self-made success
Born the fifth of seven children to a St. Paul teacher and a wildlife artist, Flynn graduated from the University of St. Thomas in 1988 with an economics degree. After a couple of years in sales with Kraft General Foods, he became an aviation candidate for the U.S. Marine Corps, but was discharged due to concussions and seizures he’d had in childhood.
Supporting himself by bartending at night, he began writing his first novel in the mid-1990s, partly to help combat his dyslexia. After receiving more than 60 rejection letters from publishers, he self-published “Term Limits” in 1997, with help from a group of investors. It sold well locally, and the book was picked up by Simon & Schuster — one of the firms that had rejected him. It wound up becoming a national bestseller (and his investors eventually got about a 500 percent return).
But it wasn’t until his second book, 1999’s “Transfer of Power,” that Flynn created his signature character, counterterrorism agent Mitch Rapp. He wrote a Rapp adventure nearly every year after that. His 12th Rapp novel, “Kill Shot,” was the Hennepin County Library system’s top-read adult book of 2012.
Some government officials found Flynn’s fictional intelligence to be uncannily accurate. The Pentagon requested a security review of “Memorial Day,” his fifth Rapp novel, before it could be published. It was then-CIA director Porter Goss who introduced President Bush to Flynn’s books.
Former CIA official Rob Richer was chief of Middle Eastern Operations when he befriended Flynn during a 2003 research trip to Washington, D.C.<
“This is a guy who wrote the books, but he also walked the talk,” said Richer. “He would vet his books to make sure he wasn’t giving away secrets while remaining true to what we did. When people were up in arms about the war on terror, he defended us. He also made sure hundreds of his books were mailed overseas to our servicemen and women. He was a guy who cared. And he was a real patriot.”
A spokesman for Bush said Thursday that the ex-president was both a fan and friend of Flynn, and had sent his condolences to the writer's family.
Toast of the talk shows
Flynn was nearly as famous for his frequent appearances on conservative radio and TV programs as he was for his fiction. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh once sent a private jet to fly Flynn to his annual golf tournament so the author wouldn’t have to miss cancer treatments.
Well-informed, articulate and strongly opinionated, he was the ideal talk-show guest. “His first show, it was like meeting the best friend you didn’t know you had,” said Duane Patterson, producer of Hugh Hewitt’s nationally syndicated radio show. Flynn became a regular on the show. “When he’d come out it would be a male-bonding, man-cave moment.”
Flynn was a familiar voice on the local talk-radio circuit as well. At sports-chat station KFAN, afternoon-drive host Dan Barreiro said Flynn “had the gift of gab. After a few years of success he wouldn’t have needed to come on the local shows to sell books, but he did it anyway. And interviewing him was like butter. Sometimes he’d say things to get the lefties going. He never ran from it, he wasn’t afraid of it.
“He will be missed. All the clichés apply. I’m going to go in the studio today and look to my left where he would sit, and think about him.”
WCCO anchor Vascellaro called Flynn’s death “heartbreaking.” A good friend who introduced Flynn to the woman who would become his wife, Lysa, Vascellaro has a lake place in Wisconsin next door to the Flynn family’s cabin.
“I saw him there Memorial Day weekend, and physically he wasn’t doing well, but it brought him joy to be at the lake,” Vascellaro said.
Most people weren’t aware of “what a huge, worldwide success he was as an author,” Vascellaro said, “because when you met him, he was just Vinny from St. Paul, a guy from a big Irish family who was grounded in his values and convictions, a loyal friend and an extraordinarily generous person who helped all kinds of people both publicly and privately.”
From 'class cut-up' to school fundraiser
One example of that generosity is a capital campaign he co-chaired to raise money for his former high school, St. Thomas Academy, where his father, Terry, had also been a student and then teacher. The campaign, which Flynn continued to work on after his cancer diagnosis, raised more than $18 million, said headmaster Thomas Mich.
“He was a loyal alumnus who demonstrated over and over again how much he cared about the institution and the young men it served,” Mich said.
Dave Ziebarth, who taught Flynn’s ninth-grade social-studies class, recalls him as “an outgoing, funny, energetic guy, a class cutup. He wasn’t the greatest student, because he struggled with reading, but he was a really hard worker. He pushed himself.”
Flynn’s 15th book, “The Survivor,” was due out in November, but that release is now uncertain, his publisher said.
“As good as Vince was on the page, he was even more engaging in person,” said Carolyn Reidy, president of Simon & Schuster, in a statement released Wednesday. “He had a truly unique ability to make everyone 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.”
In addition to his wife, Lysa, Flynn is survived by their three children as well as his siblings, parents and extended family. Services are pending.
Staff writer Neal Justin and the Associated Press contributed to this report.