These are the words I shared in La Jolla on Tuesday at my Uncle John’s service:
We all know John Peak for his intellectual capacity, his marvelous sense of humor, and his lifelong love and pride for Ernie, Brian and Alan, and the whole family.
But before I talk about John, the uncle I love and who, along with Ernie, served in loco parentis for me through a very critical period in my life, I want to introduce you to John, the boy, born just after the start of the Great Depression, the fourth and youngest son in a hard-working Denver family. John’s father, Paul Senior, worked as an adjuster for Prudential, and since the number of insurance fires only increased during the ’30s, his job was relatively safe and even included use of a car.
But that doesn’t mean times weren’t tough. All four boys grew up sleeping in a single bedroom, where each was allocated one drawer in the bureau. Not that they had an abundance of clothes. Mother Peak would sew a French knot int he back of eldest son Paul Jr’s shirts; when the shirt got passed down to next-in-line Ralph she sewed in a second French knot to denote the new owner, and by the time the shirt reached John it had its fourth French knot sewn in. I doubt it John ever wore store-bought new clothes his entire growing up years.
Another story is that whenever they were traveling and stopped at a restaurant, John would always order pancakes. It got to the point that his father knew — even without asking –w hat his youngest son’s dinner order would be. One trip, inevitably, his father ordered pancakes for John without waiting for the little boy to express his preference John interrupted his father. “I don’t want pancakes today,” he said. “I want a cheese sandwich.” “Why are you asking for something different?” one of his older bothers asked. “Because now I’m old enough to read the menu!” young John responded.
I’m not sure about the veracity of this story since I doubt that the family ate out much. But I hope it’s true — because it speaks to John’s problem-solving ability, as well as his intelligence. And did I mention his independence? A few years later, when asked where he was going to college, his answer was, someplace where none of his older brothers had gone.
In good time, John earned a scholarship to Princeton and headed east, a member of the class of 1952. Then came Navy OCS, and it was when he was in Virginia as a young naval officer that he met Ernestine, who at the time was teaching at William and Mary.
Time has mercifully glossed over much of the culture shock that must have transpired between this young man from the untamed west, and Ernestine Cox, a proud daughter of the Old Dominion. I am aware of just one event — which took place when John went to Warrenton to meet Ernie’s family for the first time and misidentified the photo of Robert E. Lee hanging in pride-of-place int he front parlor. It seems that John complimented Ernie’s mother on the her photo of Ulysses S. Grant.
Nevertheless, the wedding took place. Ernie and John would live and love for 62 years, and of couse Brian, Alan, Cheryl, Rebecca and Sarah, John, and the children Alex, Katie and baby Anna, prove the infinity of that love.
By this time, each of John[‘s brothers had similarly left Denver and they all married women from out of state. Within a short period, the four brothers — all engineers — were living in disparate locations around the country. They had come a long way from the days of four boys sharing two double beds. But they made sure to schedule family reunions every few years back in Denver – when they and their growing families would all crowd into the small house.
The last such reunion took place at Mother Peak’s funeral in 1986, and afterward, the four brothers disappeared downstairs for a closed-door meeting. When they returned, they announced that the reunions would continue on an annual basis, just not in Denver. John and Ernie took the lead with a reunion-cum-sailing expedition the next year in San Diego, and John and Ernie also hosted what proved to be the last such reunion for all four brothers and offspring, in 2014.
Two of John’s older brothers survive — Ralph in Idaho and Roy in Washington State. Unfortunately, neither is able to travel. But the tradition of getting together despite geographic hurdles continues – including inlaws, there are nine of us nieces and nephews here from the next generation — and we traveled from Louisiana, Idaho, Utah, Washington, Maine as well as the Bay area and Central California.
This is all you need to know: For Brian and Alan, and all of the extended Peak family, this love of family and disregard for geography is normal.
John stood out int he family, of course. John stood out in any crowd, with his intellectual curiosity, his unfailing good spirits, his sense of humor.
John would light up the room with his thoughtful comments and marvelous sense of humor. Just being around him was fun. One year he decided that if there could be a gaggle of geese and a pod of whales, what other collective nouns should there be? He created lists of possibilities — two favorites that have stuck with me were a bill of doctors and a hug of teddy bears. And then, after the movie “Jaws” came out, he spent time working on alternative movie titles. “Paws” was a movie about a herd of attacking felines, as I recall, and “Maws” was about little old ladies run amuck.
John was an expert on human nature. He cared deeply about people, and he paid attention to what makes people tick. This made him a very successful executive in the nuclear industry and later, when he was involved with the UCSD extension program, helped earn him Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in the role of entrepreneurial support.
It was also an attribute that proved its worth to me. I was a frequent guest in John and Ernie’s home during my college and young professional years, and during evenings and good conversation, John taught me to view my parents from an adult perspective. In other words, he helped me grow up.
Whatever he got involved with, John put his whole being into it. When Brian and Alan first discovered kites and later sailing, so did he. That knowledge of kite-flying came in useful a generation later with Rebecca and Sarah. And that was just the start of his passions. Fishing. Rocket-launching. Tide-pooling. Bee-keeping. Anasazi pottery classifications. When Ernie served on the board of the local opera, John was all in. Cat training. Well, that was one skill in which John never succeeded. But when Alan took up drums, it reawakened John’s boyhood interest as well, and he ended up playing in a series of local bands, of which the one with the name Atomic Fifth Plus 2 stands out.
When John opened his grandfather’s trunk and discovered a treasure-trove of religious tracts and sermons dating from the 1890s, he made himself an expert on late-19th century Methodist circuit-riding ministry, and he and I collaborated on a book on the topic.
When John turned his attention to another family collection, this one of pre-Civil War stamps, he learned all there is to know on the esoteric topic of early stamp perforations. Because of John’s scholarship, in the world of philately there is actually a Peak Collection of George Washington one-cent blues, one of which has ended up in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.
Who knew that a nuclear engineer could be so well-rounded?
If you don’t know all these stories, I’m not surprised. Because John was as modest as he was talented. His accomplishments caught me by surprise as well. For example, I knew of the work he had done though Rotary to install upgraded crossing walks here in La Jolla, but it was only when I spoke at the La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club a few years ago that I learned of the volunteer work he had done across the border in Mexico as well. John was just plain more interested in talking about ideas and other people than he was in talking about himself.
Obviously, I could go on forever about my Uncle John. I could tell you that he suffered from Parkinson’s for 15 years. But he would rather I tell you that his sense of humor remained intact until the end. As long as he could speak, he spoke with wit. John was smart; he was generous. He was very precious, not only to me, but to all of us in this room. We grieve with Ernie and the whole family. John Peak is gone, but he will be in our hearts forever.