Remembering William Kenneth Peasley
My dad made it to 90. Born in 1919, he grew up during the depression on a farm in Illinois with three brothers and a sister. But waking up early to milk cows before school and driving a tractor in the corn field in humid Midwest heat was not his thing. He knew he wanted out.
He wanted to be a pilot when he grew up. As a kid, he built elaborate box kites. Once he made a kite so big he had to attach a rope to a saddle and ride a horse to get it in the air. I’m not sure how he got the money or time off from chores to do it, but he did take flying lessons. One of the high points of his life was his first solo flight. He had a Coke when the plane landed safely and it tasted great.
As a boy he loved taking apart things . . . clocks, farm equipment, his mother’s sewing machine . . . and putting them back to see how they worked. The kids did not play with store-bought toys. But once an uncle sent presents from a store in California. Ken’s was an early wind-up toy made in Japan with a celluloid acrobat baby that did flips on a swing. His mother kept it from him fearful he’d take it apart.
The family lived on a farm out in the middle of nowhere, but Ken was determined to go to college. He was proud of his University of Illinois degree in mechanical engineering. His dream was to live in California. If he wasn’t going to fly a plane, he could help build them. He came out and got a job with Douglas Aircraft.
After service in World War II he decided to be his own boss. He founded Engineering Plastics Company in Pasadena, which later moved to Huntington Beach. He had great respect and admiration for the craftsmen who worked for him designing and building parts for aircraft, computer, medical instrument and other industries. Big financial success eluded him, but the company was his passion for more than three decades.
During World War II Ken was stationed in New York and lived in a big house with other bachelors in a group called The Squires. They had a maid and a butler and Ken was chairman of the social club.
As a bachelor in Los Angeles, Ken lived with several friends in a big house in the Valley with a grand piano, a pool, and horses out back. It was party central. The first time my mom visited it was July and the Christmas tree was still up. He loved to go spear fishing and abalone hunting with friends. He did not marry until 35, an old age back then. He took up snow skiing, and later our best family vacation was a trip to Mammoth where he taught us how to ski.
One of his passions from an early age was photography. He was not that great at it, but we forgave him because he gave his little brother his first camera, and helped get Uncle Don started in his 60-plus year career in photography. He bought me my first SLR when I was 17. He dove into digital photography when he was in his 80s. I am not sure what we are going to do with 75 years worth of slides, negatives, prints, and digital files . . . let alone a suitcase full of old camera equipment.
Like many people who grew up in the depression, my dad hated to throw out anything that might still have a use. My poor mother never parked a car in her garage her whole married life. Once when I was about 14, I was invited to play tennis with a group. The wooden racket he got out of the garage looked different from the rackets the others had. After a few hits, the ball smashed right through the strings! Turns out it was his 40-year-old college racket strung with the original cat gut that had rotted.
Our whole family was often mortified by his early “recycling.” If a pair of shoes wore out, he would fix them with big globs of resin. Now they were “work” shoes. But sometimes he wore them out of the house, which was especially painful if we had to accompany him on an errand in upscale Newport Beach. Resin was used to fix anything, even eyeglasses.
About three years ago we invited my dad to the ice rink so he could see my daughter figure skate. He rummaged around in the garage and found his skates from the 1930s, leather worn and blades rusty. He showed them to her coach. At 87 he was sorely disappointed he was too frail to put them on for a spin.
In my dad’s garage right now is a pile of WWII-era aircraft parts. He bought them in the 1950s to build machines for his manufacturing business. A couple years ago he spent hours cleaning the parts, taking photos, and entering descriptions into the computer so he could sell them on eBay. He moved slowly, could not see well, and could not lift much, so this was a huge effort for my parents. He did sell one item and the buyer was ecstatic that he found the exact part he needed in perfect condition.
People always ask those who live to an old age the secret to longevity. My dad found balance in body, mind, and spirit. He was no buff athlete. But each day he exercised. When we lived in a house with a pool, he swam at 5:30 every morning with a loud “whoop!’ as he hit the water. When we moved, he rode a bike every night wearing reflectors and using a headlight. In his 80s, when congestive heart failure made his breathing too labored to swim and his balance too off to ride, he took to walking. A couple years ago walking was too much. It bummed him out.
My dad had a natural curiosity and wanted to learn about everything. An early enthusiast of computers, he went from punch cards to C/PM to MS-DOS to Windows XP. A couple years ago he bought a slide scanner. His eyesight was poor, and it took many long hours on the phone to India, but he figured it out. He recently told my mom what he really needed was a Blackberry.
Ken kept up on world affairs, subscribing to several news magazines and watching the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, 60 Minutes and Charlie Rose religiously. He was a registered Republic, but often voted Democratic and loved to engage in thoughtful discussion on current events. Even though he was not musical himself, he loved opera music and played it in his garage where he tinkered on projects nights and weekends.
He had a sense of fun and was willing to try new things. When my bother was 8 or 9 my dad took him to the pet store to get a bird. My mom was surprised when they came home with a monkey! My dad built a big atrium in the backyard so the little squirrel monkey had a home as good as any zoo.
Perhaps most important, my dad kept a positive attitude, even when times were tough. The motto he invoked when we started complaining was: “Come on, let’s make a fun thing out of it.”
As kids our bedtime stories were farm memories. Squirting warm milk right at a barn cat. Hiding eggs under leaves on the seat of a tractor. Favorite horses Fred and Mabel and how they liked being together. Sleeping on the floor in the kitchen by the wood stove with his dog. As much as Ken wanted to escape, he loved talking about the farm and taking us back to visit. He retained many of his childhood sensibilities. He always knew the price of corn.
My dad valued my mom’s support. She stood by him for 54 years, many of them financially tough. She worked the early shift at the hospital for 30 years and then came home to do housework. But she took time to listen to him, and he appreciated her. He always said he was the luckiest man to have married a pretty nurse 12 years younger.
My dad was 79 when he underwent quintuple bypass surgery in 1998. My mom had retired a couple years before. She helped him recover, and he did have a few years when he was stronger. But then congestive heart failure took its toll, and she took on a second “career” as his personal nurse.
When he had his surgery, my daughter was an infant. I recall him looking at his first grandchild and wistfully imagining her enjoying the beach as he had. “I can just picture her with long blond hair wearing a bikini on the beach!” he said. It hit me then that he might not live to see that day. She is 11 now, and her brother is 9. They are sad about grampy’s death. But he did get to live long enough to watch them grow . . . to see them learn to ride a bike, ice skate, play baseball, play piano and swim in the ocean.
Last year, at 89, my dad made a toy airplane with my son. It scared me to death when his shaky hands whittled the propeller with a pocketknife. As he and my son, then 8, took turns whittling, I did not know which one made me more nervous. I could hardly watch when my dad took his walker to go out to the garage to use the power saw! As a heart patient, he was on blood thinner and I was freaking that it was gonna be pretty ugly out there if he had an accident.
We treasure the little plane on a string they made together, especially after I found a long list of projects he had wanted to do with the kids, most of them undone. Another project underway when he died was refurbishing a small motor he built in college in 1938. He fumbled on it out in the garage in recent months, but his 90-year-old eyes could hardly see the small parts. He wanted to teach my son how engines work. Our lives are so busy it was hard to make time, and when we did visit, grandpa tired so easily he could not work for long.
My mom took care of my dad at home until the last three weeks of his life when did not have the strength to get out of bed and into a wheelchair on his own. He was trying to do physical therapy at a skilled nursing facility to get stronger, but had to be admitted to the hospital. My mom was with him in the ER and then his room all day. She finally went home, but a few hours later they called her and said to come. His blood pressure was way down. As soon as she held his hand and told him she was there, his eyes grew big. He recognized her. She was there now, so he could die.
My sister and I arrived an hour later. I was disappointed I could not show him the cards my kids had made. Shea’s note said “I love you” a half dozen times. The front of Colman’s card was a drawing of the plane they had made together with the string forming a heart. My dad looked peaceful. I put the cards on the table next to his bed anyway.
One of my fondest memories of my dad was the time I spent with him one summer fixing up my old 1964 Volvo. I was home from college. The side passenger door had been smashed in. My car was green, but I had to get an old red door from a junkyard and it was tied on with rope.
We took the car to Santa Ana to have a few dents pulled out, but then we spent days doing the Bondo job ourselves. Then we sanded the car, got a new headliner, got the bumpers re-chromed and got a cream paint job. We took our time, soaked up the California rays, and shared stories while we worked. My car looked pretty sharp when we were done.
Growing up at times I wished my dad was more successful or sophisticated. But there are many qualities I admire in him, and sometimes I wish I was more like him. I’m glad my kids are old enough that they will remember him. My dad led a full life with few regrets. He made it to 90! As a veteran who reached that milestone, he received a birthday card from the White House. We were prepared for him to die, but it still it takes a bit to make sense of it all. I spent the weekend helping my mom sort through unbelievable amounts of stuff in his office and the garage. As I help her in the coming months I’m sure I will be sorting through things in my heart as well.
William Kenneth Peasley
July 6, 1919 – September 18, 2009