It Was a Wonderful Life

By Becky O’Malley
Wednesday January 07, 2009 - 06:28:00 PM

Last week, as a cold December was coming to an end, my father, Warren Peters (known to everyone from his Princeton ‘34 classmates to his great-grandchildren as “Pete”) departed from his life on this earth. He’d been around for almost a century: Born in 1912, he enjoyed 93 years of vigorous good humor, and endured three more recent years of much-diminished mobility and mental acuity with good grace, dying at 96.  

In 1930, as the depression was taking hold, it was somewhat unusual for a boy born in Brooklyn, graduating from a smalltown public high school in New Jersey, to matriculate at Princeton in a class populated largely by graduates of exclusive prep schools. He thoroughly enjoyed studying history there, and told us later that if circumstances had allowed he would have gone to graduate school to become a professor. But he graduated from college in 1934, when the economic outlook was considerably bleaker even than it is today, and he counted himself lucky to get a job selling industrial chemicals with a big corporation.  

It took him to St. Louis, where he met and married my mother in 1939. She was the oldest daughter in a big and lively Catholic family. My father, despite his more reserved Protestant background, enthusiastically became a key family participant. He was great good friends with his brothers-in-law and a mentor for my mother’s younger sisters.  

I was born in 1940, as war clouds were gathering around the world. Not too much later, after Pearl Harbor, my father decided that he should volunteer for the U.S. Navy, which he did without consulting my mother. She (and I) moved into her family’s big old house, and he went to war.  

From the stories he told afterwards, it seems that his war experience was similar to that of many other men of his generation. On the one hand, it was traumatic—my father, who became a gunnery officer on a ship, couldn’t enjoy Fourth of July fireworks in later years because they brought back painful combat memories. On the other hand, he enjoyed his chance to see the world, in both the Pacific and the Atlantic theaters. A cherished souvenir is a photo of my father standing next to a water buffalo in the Philippines.  

His ship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean, and he was re-assigned to a Free French vessel for nine months. He visited Italy, Algiers and Tunis, gained 30 pounds because the food in the French officers’ mess was so good and acquired a good grasp of sailor’s French. (This would come in handy after the war, when he was seated at dinner next to a visiting French dignitary, but he learned then that the dialect and vocabulary of Marseilles seamen weren’t exactly right at a genteel dinner party.)  

As the war wound down he was stationed once again in the United States, with chances for his family to join him in Florida and other southern ports from time to time. My sister was born in 1943, just a couple of days after one of his beloved brothers-in-law was killed serving in the Army Air Force. 

By 1945 he was back in St. Louis to begin another couple of decades as the Organization Man who was thought to typify the culture of the ’50s. During that time, he singlehandedly supported not only our nuclear family, but made major contributions to supporting my grandparents and others. This was not because he particularly enjoyed the corporate life, but because he saw his duty and did it as needed.  

In the mid-’50s the corporation moved us to southern California, transplanting my mother away from her St. Louis roots. The move was hard on her, but it turned my sister and me, and eventually our parents too, into lifelong Californians.  

Once again the corporation spoke, and this time it said move to New Jersey, not a destination my parents approached with much enthusiasm. They stuck it out there for a few years, long enough to see my sister and me out of college and married.  

Finally, my father got a job he couldn’t tolerate. He was assigned the task of travelling around the country to all the sales offices to “clean out the dead wood.” My father was a tender-hearted man, and firing people was painful for him. But he came up with an elegant solution to his problem. First, he invented a policy that said that anyone who’d been with the company for more than 30 years and was over 55 could take early retirement on a reduced pension, and he persuaded his bosses to endorse it. Then, as soon as it was in place, he announced that he himself would be the first person to take the deal, and he left. 

My parents moved back to California where my father looked for a retirement job to supplement his pension. Serendipitously, my mother-in-law had just agreed to be one of the first faculty members at the new UC Santa Cruz, and she tipped my father off to an opening there. He was hired to start the UCSC alumni office, and my parents moved to Watsonville. They built a house in the country, and for many years enjoyed rural life and entertained their grandchildren before moving to the East Bay after my father’s ultimate retirement from UC.  

In the last 10 years or so they lived near us in Berkeley, making out just fine on their own, though they were over 80 when they moved into a little house on a quiet street. There they had wonderful neighbors who kept an eye out for them, and a new young dog who has aged with them. Small strokes finally slowed my father down, so much that he spent the last three years in bed or in a wheelchair and was no longer as acute mentally. 

My mother took splendid care of him after that, with the aid of some excellent helpers, though she’s over 90 herself. She much appreciated the occasional backup in emergency situations provided by the people at Easy Does It, especially Louie and Gina, and the help of Berkeley firefighter paramedics in a few serious emergencies.  

My father’s life was not, one might think, a life remarkable in any way, looking only at these skeletal facts. What I haven’t mentioned yet, what is in some way the most important thing about my father, is that he was both a great lover and a great singer. 

He dearly loved his wife, his children, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and also a succession of devoted dogs. All of us, people and dogs, flourished with the knowledge that we were appreciated. 

And the singing? My father boasted that he’d once sung on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, which he had—as a member of the Princeton Glee Club. But his longest and most appreciated run, after he got back from World War II, was as a purveyor of bedtime songs to daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren over many decades. One granddaughter became a professional singer, but all of us learned to love music by listening to Pete sing us to sleep.  

Recently I was minding one of my granddaughters, his great-granddaughter, 6 years old, and I sang to her (off-key, of course) a popular ditty from the ’20s that my father had sung to me when I was her age. “I know that song!” she said. “My mother sings it to me.”  

It’s a family tradition, we told her. “Well, if it’s a family tradition, why don’t I know the words?” she complained, and she has a point—it’s time to teach her the words. Everyone needs to know how to sing as my father did.  

In many ways, he represented the best of what the 20th century offered. He did what the times required of him as well as he could, and took care of a lot of other people without making a big deal out of it. And most important, he did what he had to do, almost all the time as far as I could see, with a song and a smile. Can any of us expect to achieve much more in life?