Pete Harrigan: Words, music, service define varied life

Retired journalist, PR executive gives back to local arts
April 30, 2024

Pete Harrigan traveled from Lewes to Buffalo, N.Y., to view the recent total eclipse firsthand.

“It was a spooky darkness. I’m so glad I had the opportunity,” Harrigan said.

Harrigan has rarely missed an opportunity in his long career as a journalist, public relations executive and now dedicated supporter of the arts in Sussex County.

He has interviewed governors, toured the Kennedy Space Center with NASA astronauts, hobnobbed with Princess Diana and learned to play the pipe organ.

Harrigan was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Staten Island, N.Y.

“I decided I wanted to be a priest, so in high school I was actually in the seminary, which was a wonderful learning experience,” he said.

Harrigan entered the seminary program at Siena College in upstate New York. He dropped out halfway through his freshman year, but stayed at Siena to study finance instead.

“I also got involved in the campus radio station and became editor of the campus newspaper,” he said.

That’s when Harrigan caught the journalism bug.

“It was the height of the Vietnam War. We had prominent speakers, pro- or anti-war, on campus. I worked out a deal with the Associated Press to become the campus stringer,” he said.

Harrigan began working for his hometown newspaper, the Staten Island Advance, during a semester break of his junior year. He was offered a job after graduation. Harrigan’s beat included the state capitol in Albany, N.Y., where he got to question that state’s movers and shakers, including Gov. Hugh Carey.

In 1983, Harrigan made a life-changing move from journalism to public relations. Journalists sometimes call that going to the dark side.

“I answered a blind ad in the Wall Street Journal for a PR job. It turned out to be Lockheed Electronics in New Jersey,” Harrigan said.

He took the job and started on a 28-year career with Lockheed and Lockheed Martin. He eventually became the head of corporate communications for divisions in Washington, D.C., and California.

Working for one of the world’s largest defense contractors had its perks. Harrigan got to sit in the cockpit of the once-top-secret Lockheed SR-71 spy plane.

He got a personal, behind-the-scenes tour of NASA’s space shuttle facility from retired astronaut Mike McCulley, who also worked for Lockheed at the time.

One of his most memorable events came in 1997, when Princess Diana visited Washington. Harrigan and his wife, Joanne, attended an American Red Cross event, which was sponsored by Lockheed Martin. Diana was there to speak about her campaign against landmines.

“We were invited to a pre-dinner reception where we met the princess and Elizabeth Dole, then the president of the American Red Cross,” he said. “[Before dinner] people got up from the head table and moved around the room to talk with others. Joanne wondered if she could wander over and chat further with the princess. She did. After about 10 minutes, I headed over to retrieve her, but Sen. [Bob] Dole invited me to have a seat and join the conversation. At the end of the evening, the princess walked by our table; she stopped to wish us a good evening and to tell us how much she enjoyed the conversation. That moment was captured by CNN. We received many phone calls from family and friends who saw it.”

Retirement, volunteering and the arts

The Harrigans retired to Lewes in 2011. Pete quickly put his PR experience to work helping the local arts scene.

“The first thing I came across was Coastal Concerts. I was impressed with the quality of the performance and of the organization,” he said.

Harrigan started as a volunteer, joined the marketing committee, the board of directors and then served as president of Coastal Concerts for four years.

“That gave me insight in the overall arts scene in Delaware,” he said.

He also served on the board of the Delaware Arts Alliance.

“I was blessed growing up to have access to arts and cultural opportunities,” he said. “I learned to play the piano and was not that bad.”

However, he says he is not nearly good enough for a Coastal Concerts performance.

“In the seminary, I learned to play the pipe organ. A student who was an accomplished organist taught me the basics. I really enjoyed playing it, until I got banned for playing ‘Alleycat.’”

Harrigan also became friends with accomplished violinist Elena Urioste, whose father was also a former Lockheed employee. Harrigan did PR work for Urioste when she launched the Chamber by the Sea summer music festival in Berlin, Md., in 2016. 

It was around that time that Harrigan got an unexpected gig: a TV segment on the local NBC station, called the “Renaissance Man.”

The whole thing came about because Harrigan was tired of technical glitches.

“We would be watching in the morning and the screen would just freeze. It was terrible,” Harrigan said.

“I did a little research and found out the name of the person in charge of affiliates at NBC and wrote her a letter. She responded three days later and thanked me for letting her know,” he said.

Then, Harrigan heard from local station owner Bob Backman, who not only thanked Harrigan for his concern but also offered him an arts segment on one of the newscasts. After a lot of persuasion, Harrigan agreed to do it.

“On two conditions: you’re not going to pay me and I can quit anytime,” he said.

Thus, the “Renaissance Man” was born and the segments lasted more than two years.

Harrigan said the biggest challenge facing the arts community in southern Delaware is the lack of a dedicated performing arts center.

“Right now, options are limited to mostly churches. They have good acoustics, but their size is constrained. We need a public-spirited developer to step up to work with private funds, develop this and make it a resource for the entire community,” he said.

Harrigan has been a volunteer instructor for the University of Delaware’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, conducting mostly online sessions. For one of his classes, he teaches the journalistic art of writing obituaries. Yes, Harrigan wrote his own as an example.

“We start out with the history of obituaries, then get into different writing styles,” he said. “I give people a questionnaire and tell them even if they don’t want to write their own [obituary], at least write notes so that when the time comes, your survivors will know what was important to you.”

Harrigan has also taught a course on the history of New York City, along with two other instructors who are from the Empire State.

When the pandemic hit, Harrigan jumped into action and volunteered for the Cape Community Coalition for COVID-19, which was started by Jen Mason of Biblion Books in Lewes.

“Our thought was that instead of everybody trying to do their own thing, why not coordinate, identify urgent needs and focus resources on meeting those needs?” Harrigan said.

Even though the COVID threat has faded, the coalition still has more than 100 organizations that address areas of need in Sussex County.

“If you go inland a little bit, you discover incredible levels of poverty, inadequate housing, areas with no internet. Through CCC, we’ve tried to help with some of those things,” he said.

Harrigan said he wants to do more in the area of social needs, while continuing his support for the arts.

“I think it’s incredibly fortunate to be able to pursue in some way, shape or form all of the things I’ve ever been interested in trying,” Harrigan said. “I look back and think that I’ve had an extremely fulfilling life. Maybe that should be the headline on my obituary.”


  • TThe Cape Gazette staff has been featuring Saltwater Portraits for more than 20 years. Reporters prepare written and photographic portraits of a wide variety of characters in Delaware's Cape Region. Saltwater Portraits typically appear in the Cape Gazette's Tuesday print edition in the Cape Life section and online at To recommend someone for a Saltwater Portrait feature, email

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter