GREELEY — Mike Peters, among Northern Colorado’s best-known and most-revered journalists, died Wednesday night at his Greeley home with family members at his side after an illness. He was 79.
Peters began his 40-year career in the Greeley Tribune newsroom in 1971 as the police reporter and steadily expanded his reach and influence until, and even after, his 2011 retirement. For 10 more years after that date, he continued weekly installments of the topical front-page column for which he was most widely known.
The family plans a private memorial service to be followed by a community observance at a later date that will be noted here. A full obituary also will be shared with BizWest readers.
In October 2005, Peters was featured in a special 10th anniversary edition of the Northern Colorado Business Report, BizWest’s predecessor. The special section celebrated 40 Northern Colorado icons — people, places and things that shape the region’s identity. Here is that portion featuring Mike Peters and the newspaper column that was his trademark.
“Hey, have ya read Mike Peters today?”
It’s the question that comes up during back-fence, water-cooler and dinner table talk all over Weld County — one that invites conversation sprinkled with laughter and, sometimes, tears.
When corn kernels rained down out of a clear blue sky on LaSalle, a farm community south of Greeley, Mike Peters was there.
When dozens of ceramic garden gnomes were kidnapped from their central Greeley homes — and later found stuffed into plastic garbage bags in a park — Mike Peters was there.
These stories, and other slices of Weld County’s quirkier side of life, are chronicled in the archives of the “Gnarly Trombone,” perhaps the best-known bylined newspaper column in Northern Colorado history.
Peters has been cranking it out weekly, and sometimes more frequently, for 31 of the 33 years he has been writing for the Greeley Tribune, the oldest daily newspaper in the region.
Not only that: As the Tribune’s police-beat reporter, he’s been attacked by dogs, run over by a patrol car, had his life threatened and has spent many a sad, weary night standing in the rain or snow, taking notes at a fatal accident scene on some rural Weld County road.
“If I was going to select one thing that epitomizes what the Greeley Tribune means — and what journalism means — to the community, I would take Mike Peters and his work,” Tribune publisher Jim Elsberry said.
“He’s the best example I know of a working journalist who cares deeply about his community and finds people who most reflect what that community is all about.”
About that corn rain: It happened in the early 1990s, when LaSalle residents spent days mystified by the feed corn that fell from the sky and pinged on roofs and cars like hail.
It was a story made for the shock tabloid “Weekly World News” and, for a time, the rag that features two-headed alien babies on its front page was Peters’ only competition on the story.
But it was Peters who solved the mystery, locating the farm on LaSalle’s outskirts where an eccentric young man with an oversized slingshot whiled away afternoon hours by launching handfuls of feed corn skyward.
And the gnomes? Well, journalists speak of stories that “get legs” — stories that run for days upon days, fueled by the outpouring of interest from readers. The saga of the gnomes was such a story, with the metro-Denver dailies chasing to Greeley for a piece of the action. Puns became the order of the day for headline writers. “Gnomeland security.” “Home sweet gnome.”
But Peters, knowing his legions of readers as well as he knows the members of his own family, kept the legs running longest, just as he’s done with countless other Tribune stories since the early 1970s.
“One of the amazing things about Mike is that he has an incredible ability to know what average people in the community are thinking about and talking about,´ said Tribune managing editor Randy Bangert, who has shared the newsroom with Peters for 30 years.
“Over the years we’ve had hundreds of stories that we never would have had, just because Mike has that amazing relationship with readers.”