Eulogy for Donald Harding Peck
We all consider ourselves fortunate to have had all these years with Don – Dad, to us.
Some people write their own obituaries. When Dad passed away last week, we found ourselves without one in hand for the newspapers.
But then we realized that we had the obituary, after all. Dad had been dictating the story of his life to us for years, through his favorite tales and memories.
And it is a remarkable story – from beginning to end.
Born on August 2nd, 1923 – the third of five boys for Tilly & Harry Peck – he was named after President Warren G. Harding, who’d died the day he was born. We recently came upon a letter that his older brothers George and Fred penned to their mother after his birth. It read: “Dear Mom, we hope you get better real soon. Grandpa thought that ‘Spark Plug’ would be a good name for the baby.”
Dad shared with us fond memories of his childhood. From an early age, he found he loved to read. He had special memories of trips to the movies with his older brothers. He recounted trips to New York City to see relatives – all the way down the Merritt Parkway in an unforgiving rumble seat.
When the Great Depression descended on the nation, even the bare necessities were hard to come by for the Pecks. Dad often credited his grandfather’s Mt. Carmel farm with feeding the family while so many others went hungry.
The Depression – and War – gave him perspective.
A million times, we’ve tried to put ourselves in my father’s shoes when, at the tender age of 19, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps – knowingly giving himself to war.
All five of the Peck brothers mustered for their grateful nation and served during WWII.
George and Fred joined the Army and saw unspeakable action in Europe. Harold and Cecil took to the seas with the United States Navy.
And Dad chose the Marine Corps.
Before he enlisted, Dad went to his father, Harry, and told him about his plan.
His father advised him to seek out a guy from the neighborhood who’d been a Marine and get his insight about what to expect.
The guy told him, “Keep your mouth closed, your eyes open, and don’t volunteer for anything.”
A few years back, Healy and Gretchen, and David and Harold accompanied Don to Washington DC, so that he could see the solemn Friday night Marine Corps “parade,” at the oldest Marine Corps barracks in the United States.
They took the train to DC and got in line outside the barracks before the event.
Almost immediately, a pair of Marines approached and asked if Don would do them the honor of accompanying them to the Officers’ club.
There, Don and Harold met some of the base officers and enjoyed a glass of wine. One of the officers pulled Gretchen aside and tasked her with getting Don and Harold back to the Club after the parade, because they wanted to honor the brothers.
In front of a room packed with Marines, our family’s living heroes were honored with a certificate of service and rousing applause.
Asked to say a few words, Dad recounted the advice that Marine gave him all those years ago: “Keep your mouth shut, your eyes open, and don’t volunteer for anything.”
The room erupted in applause and Oohrahs!
Then Harold was asked to say a few words, and in the good-natured way they had with one another, Harold one-upped Dad and said, “The Marines couldn’t have done it without the Navy!”
The cheers and applause rang out even louder.
So at 19, Dad took that advice he’d been given and shipped off to Parris Island.
After boot camp was behind him, the platoon got their assignments, and Dad and another soldier were told they were headed to radar school. They had to ask their drill instructor what radar was. He barked back: “How would I know? I think it has something to do with submarines.”
Dad went to the South Pacific, where he spent time “island hopping” around Guadacanal and Guam.
He landed on Guam in one of those floating tin cans you may be familiar with from the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan. Mortar shells rained down around them.
Don knew to keep his head down, but the platoon’s Corpsman momentarily lost his focus and lifted his – long enough to take some shrapnel to his shoulder. The landing craft bounced on the waves, while several of the Marines tried to size up the extent of the wound, cutting at the fabric of his uniform to see how bad it was.
Don lost track of him after that. They reached the beach, and the front flap of the vehicle opened and they ran toward the incoming artillery and rifle fire.
Don saw a crate on the beach up ahead and ran for it, taking shelter and momentary reprieve behind it.
There was printing on the crate. He focused in on the writing. GRENADES, it read.
So Don kept moving, and they took that beach and then the island.
His first night, he got tasked to a fox hole with another fellow, and the two worked it out that they would take shifts sleeping and being on lookout. Don recalled using his helmet as his pillow while a monsoon pummeled the island with relentless rains and turning the foxhole to a mud pit. When his buddy finally woke him, he’d been asleep for hours, right through that rainstorm, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Donald Peck always handled adversity like that. He just soldiered through it.
The Corpsman who took the shrapnel to the arm crossed paths with Don several days later, and said, “You all cut me up worse than that shrapnel!” Don told that story a thousand times in the years since. Even in that horrific memory he couldn’t shake, he found the humor.
After the War, Dad traveled to Ohio, where he enrolled at Defiance College and earned his Associates degree. He worked his way through college; he got a job cleaning up a restaurant at the end of the night. Part of his compensation was being able to cook whatever he wanted to in the kitchen – as long as he cleaned up before the morning shift – free rein of the kitchen. He became quite the master of his kitchen from then on.
After college, Dad returned to New Haven, where good jobs were hard to come by. As a kid, he’d been fascinated with flight, and re-enlisted – this time, with the Army Air Corps, the predecessor to the United States Air Force. Though he had a hardboiled fear of heights, he recalled feeling no fear when he was in the air, high above Texas. He loved the thrill of it, and often told the story of how his flight instructor introduced him to upside down, inverted flying.
Dad was proud of his accomplishment, flying solo, and perhaps forever disappointed that his poor night vision caused him to “wash out” of flight school, he used to say. Still, he had big dreams becoming a commercial pilot, and he specifically wanted to fly bush planes in the Alaska wild – an adventuresome, curious spirit he passed on to his sons.
He’d never make it to Alaska.
Instead, he came back to New Haven and over a chance encounter at Polo’s Ice Cream, he met and began to court his true love, Connie, and the Pecks and the Cronins were forever united, too.
Don & Con were married for more than 60 years – a love that endured the very best of times and the very worst of times. They had their share of hardships, but also great joy. There were the births of their three sons – Brian, David and Healy, and their grandchildren, Emily, Gil, Susannah and Joaquin.
There were the enumerable parties and Hibernian balls, and festive occasions that brought out the whole family, dressed in their finest attire. There were summer days and nights on Indian Neck, with the family gathered, wet and salty from the Sound, enjoying clams and Hull’s and laughs.
Don had a remarkable work ethic. Whether it was cooking on the line at the Three Judges Restaurant or working for 25 years as a design engineer for the State of Connecticut, he relished his day-to-day responsibilities, and was especially fond of the camaraderie with his co-workers. He took pride in his work – his slide rule calculations from 50 years ago have been confirmed by today’s technology.
Dad enjoyed a good “survey party” – like the time the State was intent on putting in a new stretch of road, and his team was tasked with the planning. The problem was, there were homes in the way of the planned road, and one day, while going door to door to ask for permission to assess the land, he had to knock at the house with the sign in front that said: Psychic. Phrenologist.
This was a specialized psychic who could foretell the future by reading the bumps on your head.
The woman opened the door and Don explained that he was with the DOT and needed access to her property. She became very upset and pleaded with Don to tell her, “Am I going to have to move? Are they going to take my house?”
Not missing a beat, Don suggested: “Why don’t you just read the bumps on your own head and find out?” The psychic was not amused.
Don certainly saw the humor in everything.
As a father, he was engaged, spending one-on-one time with each of his boys – fishing, teaching them how to drive. He could make even the most mundane tasks – a home repair project, or making the rounds to Joe’s Produce and The Prime Market; or getting a haircut at Nick’s Barbershop, feel like the best day ever. His Sunday dinners of Short Ribs, Beef Soup or Clam Chowder were something we all looked forward to.
Don was a curious man. He read everything he could get his hands on.
His brother, Harold, will attest that he has almost single-handedly kept the magazine industry in business. He subscribed to National Geographic, Readers Digest, and every title about science, space, archeology and history that a person can still subscribe to in print.
He appreciated a good car, too. His favorite, he recalled, was a yellow VW Bus, but the most often fabled car of Don’s was the notorious AMC Green Hornet.
One day, he and Connie were out driving and red and blue lights began to flash. From the cop-car loudspeaker came the instruction: “Green Hornet, pull over!”
Immediately, his wife accused him, “Don! What did you do wrong?”
When the police officer sidled up to his window and informed him that he had a taillight out and wondered if Don had known about it, Don jokingly retorted, “No. How could I? I’m up here, and it’s back there.” He had a point.
Don had the gift of gab. He could make easy conversation with anyone. He was positively charming. He called that charm “a blessing and a curse – the Peck Curse.”
During his runs and errands around Branford, he could stop into any establishment and know the people who worked there by name and vice versa. They could all count on Don Peck for a laugh or a limerick.
He retained that sense of humor throughout his life. In fact, just a few weeks before he died, when one of the nurses tending to him came to his room to give him medicine, he toasted her.
Before taking the pill, he lifted the plastic cup to her and said, “Here’s to the girl who lives down the hill. She won’t do it, but her sister will. Here’s to her sister.”
Above all, he was a family man. And so it was fitting that when he became a widow, he found comfort in family– especially at the side of his “kid brother,” Harold.
It would have been understandable for Don to be consumed by grief and lonely, but Harold saved him from that – opening his home and offering care, companionship, devotion and love.
Together, they soldiered on.
In many ways, Don was truly remarkable, special, outstanding, exceptional, even heroic – all the adjectives that come to mind when you think of his Greatest Generation. They all apply to Don.
And in other ways, he was beautifully ordinary. He was humble, frugal, simple, practical.
He had a talent for distilling life’s most complicated dilemmas down to pragmatic choices of right and wrong.
Don’s wisdom was sage. He had the perspective of a man who’d seen the very worst of humans during war, but came back from it to lead a life that exemplified the very best of humanity.
And now, in his honor, we must all soldier on.