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WBUR Oral History Project: Peter Payack

Peter Payack

Interviewed by: Jayne Guberman

Date: March 13, 2014

Location: Cambridge, MA

Recorder: Joanna Shea O'Brien

Photo: Peter Payack (Photo by Joanna Shea O'Brien)




Peter Payack, writing professor, poet and community activist, grew up in Boonton, NJ in a large Italian American family.  He graduated from Catholic University, in Washington, D.C., where he studied philosophy. In 1972, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he embarked on a career in poetry, publishing poems in the The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Paris Review and Asimov Science Fiction magazine, and authoring fifteen books.  Peter became very active in the Cambridge community, where he helped found the Cambridge River Festival, First Night, and invented “Phone-A-Poem”, a call in poetry line that  operated from 1976 to 2001, and is now archived at Harvard University’s Lamont Library.  In 2007, he was named the poet populist of Cambridge, and has lectured at University of Massachusetts Lowell and is currently a professor of writing at Berklee College of Music. Peter is also a conceptual artist, sky artist and inventor.

He is a lifelong athlete, having run the Boston Marathon twelve times, and for the last fifteen years, has been an assistant wrestling coach at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, where both of his sons wrestled.  Sensing a lack of sporting opportunities for girls, he and a friend started the Cambridge Girls Softball League in the 1990s.

In his interview, Payack reflects on the city of Cambridge, the importance of community: “In a community, you had to be part of a community. I always say that the Greeks, the word idiot itself, meant I stand alone, and it was assigned to somebody who didn’t partake in civic life.  So it wasn’t like you’re not smart, it was, you weren’t smart because you didn’t take part in civic life.”

Peter details his relationship with distance running and what the Boston Marathon means to him.  As an adolescent, he played football, wrestled and ran track, and describes his early relationship with running.  He began competing in marathons in the 1970s, completing 24 marathons, and logging 85,000 running miles total.

Peter describes helping his son to train for his first Boston Marathon in 2013, biking along the route as his son ran on race day, and what happened when the bombs went off at the finish line.  The rest of the week was marked by the tragic shooting of Officer Sean Collier in the nearby MIT neighborhood on April 18, 2013, and the release of the photos of the alleged bombers, who Peter still did not recognize. 

The interview continues with Peter’s shocking discovery that his former wrestling student and team captain, Dzhokar “Jahar” Tsarnaev, was responsible for the marathon bombings.  A journalist friend contacted him and asked if that was Peter’s wrestler, and when he said yes, a media frenzy began for Peter and his family, with steady phone calls from national news outlets and news trucks gathering outside his home to hear his opinion of Jahar’s identity. With his wife’s guidance, Peter prepared to make a statement outside his home and decided to tell Jahar to give himself up to the police, ‘Jahar, this is Coach Payack, there’s been enough death and destruction, please stop the madness and turn yourself in.‘ Later that day, Peter was contacted by the FBI to try and help with the capture of Jahar, but ultimately Jahar Tsarnaev was found before Peter arrived in Watertown by bicycle.  The FBI agent told Peter that they used his statement to get Jahar to surrender. 

The rest of the interview continues with Peter’s description of the weeks that followed and how he came to terms with the idea that the kid he knew so well could commit such atrocities. He reflects on what kind of person Jahar was as a high school student, and the wrestling team’s relationship with him and how Jahar was a close part of their community.  He shares anecdotes about Jahar, and notes that he never saw his family or his brother at any wrestling meets, which is especially unusual because if an older brother or relative is an athlete as was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the coaches expect, even dread, that relative’s over-involvement in the student’s sporting career.

Peter’s interview concludes with his description of the stress he experienced in the aftermath with the media firestorm and the subsequent backlash to the Rolling Stone cover story in July, 2013 in which Peter had been quoted.  He reflects on how Boston and the country was affected, his heartbreak over the death of the marathon victims, and the importance of peace and community in healing.  


Audio Clip 1

Peter describes his decision to speak to the media amassed outside his home the morning of the Watertown manhunt, and what his wife told him to say.

Audio Clip 2

Peter talks about a call he receives from the FBI and going to the scene in Watertown where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured.

Audio Clip 3

Peter reflects on the sense of betrayal and anger he felt upon learning that his former wrestling student was responsible for the marathon bombing.

Full Interview


Related Links

"A Year Later, MIT Officer And Cambridge Coach Recall Marathon Tragedy's Impact On Their City" (WBUR)

"26 Miles of Glory" by Big D and The Kids Table

As noted in the song's "About" page, "26 Miles of Glory began when Peter Payack, a Berklee Professor and marathoner who has run 12 Bostons, called his former student turned friend, David McWane, saying - 'We just have to do this song; the city needs it.'"


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