He’s captured countless images and events in both words and photographs, and personally witnessed McHenry County history for more than 60 years. Paul Anthony Arco visits “Mr. Woodstock.”
Just how beloved is Don Peasley by the Woodstock community?
The writer and photographer has been dubbed Mr. Woodstock by Mayor Dr. Brian Sager. Opening day of this year’s McHenry County Fair has been named “Don Peasley Day.” He’s received numerous awards, including the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award, given by the Illinois Humanities Council to individuals who have championed causes in their communities. Peasley is a familiar face wherever he goes.
“He’s one of those people that if you go out to lunch with him, people always stop and say, ‘Hi Don,’” says Cheryl Wormley, publisher and co-owner of the Woodstock Independent. “He’s known in the agricultural community, the baseball community, the VFW, Lions Club and so on. Whatever your organization is, he’s willing to help. He really is Mr. Woodstock.”
For more than 65 years, Peasley has served as the eyes and ears of Woodstock, a charming city of 24,000 in McHenry County. As a newspaper reporter, he’s covered everything from groundbreakings and presidential visits to unforgettable sporting events. As a photographer, he’s captured 50th wedding anniversaries, building dedications and appearances by most United States presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower. For Peasley, no story is too insignificant, no photograph too ordinary. “I enjoy writing and photographing the events and people in my community,” he says. “I always take a positive approach, and I always try to be accurate.”
At 89, the soft-spoken Peasley is still witty, still on the ball and continues to be a man about town. He writes a Sunday column, “On the Square,” for the Northwest Herald, and has his own page, “Peasley’s Perspective,” in the weekly Woodstock Independent, where he contributes stories and photos. Wormley says the newspaper continues to run Peasley’s work because “people love to read what Don writes.”
“The amazing thing about my dad is his nature,” says daughter Sarah Peasley. “He is a gentle, mild-mannered man. He sees Woodstock and its people in a good light. He’s never been a rabble-rouser, he’s never made enemies, he doesn’t gossip and he’s not interested in being a power player in conflicts. He wants to get schools named after people. He wants to write a meaningful obituary. There’s a reason he’s been able to do this for so long. He has such good will for people.”
Memories of that benevolence abound in the second-floor office of Peasley’s Woodstock home. It’s where he comes to work every day. The walls are cluttered with photos from the past – the 1952 Hebron Giants state championship basketball team, a black-and-white of President Richard Nixon at a Chicago event in 1959 and plenty of snapshots of his wife and their four children. There are autographed baseballs, copies of Sports Illustrated and Newsweek magazines stacked on his desk and boxes of photographs piled on the floor. A perfect day for Peasley is working the phones to line up interviews, clipping articles from various publications and catching up on the day’s news with longtime friends and sources. This is Peasley’s place of refuge.
“His hobby is his career,” says Sarah. “He doesn’t garden, play golf or collect stamps. I’ve never seen him exercise. He loves to go out and just listen to people. He lives and breathes his work.”
A Family Man
Peasley grew up in western Illinois, in Terre Haute, a sleepy town of 279. The youngest of four boys, he credits his longevity to living on a farm, where he rose early every morning to complete chores before heading off to school.
“I’m blessed and very aware of my good health,” he says. “I had to learn to be independent on the farm. Many times, I had to solve my problems, whether it was chasing cows that got out of the barn, or fixing equipment that broke down.”
Peasley first became interested in the newspaper business in high school, when he read the Chicago Tribune, which was delivered to nearby Lomax by train. After serving three years in the U.S. Navy, he graduated from the University of Illinois in 1947, where he was an editor and reporter for the Daily Illini, competing for scoops against the city’s major newspapers, the Champaign News-Gazette and the Urbana Courier. “Journalism gave me a chance to find out about things I was interested in,” he says. “It gave me an excuse to ask questions.”
Following graduation, Peasley and his wife, Fran, moved to Woodstock, where he started his career with the Woodstock Journal. “We were married Feb. 14, 1946,” he says. “Isn’t that romantic?”
As important as his work was, Peasley most enjoyed spending time with his family. The couple raised four children in Woodstock: Mary, a school teacher in Chicago; Mark, a mail carrier in Woodstock; Chuck, a computer programmer in Yorba Linda, Calif.; and Sarah, a writer who lives in Littleton, Colo.
“I’ll always remember how we’d gather my friends and go to the Woodstock Square or a city park and take photographs,” Sarah says. “And we always finished the day with a trip to Dairy Queen. He loved it as much as us kids. When it comes to desserts, there’s always been a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face.”
Peasley lost Fran, who worked as a therapist, this past March after a lengthy illness. He remembers his wife of 66 years as a person always willing to help others. “She had the ability to listen to other people,” he says. “Her desire to help people kept her going. She enjoyed life.”
Over the years, Peasley has worked as a freelance writer, photographer and editor for a variety of publications, including the Community News, Woodstock Daily Sentinel, Woodstock Leader, Elgin Courier-News, McHenry County Citizen and Farmers’ News, the monthly publication of the McHenry County Farm Bureau. Farming has always held a special place in Peasley’s heart. He fondly recalls the time, in 1982, when he was asked to escort a group of Russian farmers to local farms. Peasley rented a van and showed the farmers around before inviting them home to a family Thanksgiving dinner.
But farming was only a portion of Peasley’s beat. He’s covered city council meetings, Chamber of Commerce celebrations and high school sports. “Hebron winning the 1952 state high school basketball championship was my biggest story,” he says. “I remember it like it was yesterday.”
In 1950, Peasley started a public relations firm, Don Peasley and Associates. Success came quickly, primarily because he knew so many people who were more than willing to give him work. “I’d get calls from people with story ideas, or someone who needed a photographer to shoot a 50th anniversary,” he says. “I liked covering positive, upbeat success stories, things people are accomplishing or they overcome.”
And he still does. “What amazes me about Don is that he’s always looking for the next story,” says his assistant, Kathie Comella. “His skills are as sharp as ever.”
Peasley never fancied himself a photographer, until he got a call in 1950 from someone asking him to take pictures for an annual meeting brochure. He took 26 photos and decided 24 of them were good. “I thought, ‘My gosh, I am a photographer,’” he says, smiling.
Since then, Peasley has photographed thousands of people, events and lasting memories. One of his favorite photos was of President Eisenhower at the Illinois State Fair in 1954. “I didn’t even have a press pass,” Peasley says. “The security wasn’t what it is today. I just walked up to him and took the picture. I didn’t even know what I was doing.”
Like the time he went up in an airplane to take aerial shots. “Back then, I had to manually load up one film holder at a time,” he says. “I only brought two holders with me, so I could only take four exposures.”
Weddings, he says, are the most difficult but fulfilling to photograph. “A couple really appreciates what you do for them,” he says. That was evident when a couple put Peasley up in a hotel after he braved a brutal snow storm to photograph their wedding in downtown Chicago.
Peasley has provided many photos to the Woodstock Library’s Woodstock Sesquicentennial History Project. He helped to create the Fran Peasley Audiovisual Room, in honor of his late wife, at the library where he covers and photographs every annual meeting of the Friends of Woodstock Library. He also donated his collection of historical photographs to the McHenry Historical Society and published A Collection of Memories by Don Peasley: 58 Years of Woodstock and McHenry County History.
Growing up, Peasley dreamed of playing baseball for the Chicago Cubs. He would curl up next to his radio and listen to the play-by-play descriptions of every game. “I was addicted,” he says. Peasley played first base in high school, where he says he was “decent.” But when his baseball dream fell short of a trip to the big leagues, he did the next best thing: he became a reporter so he could write about baseball and other passions.
Peasley has hung on to that devotion throughout the years. He was a founder of Woodstock Little League 59 years ago. For the past 49 years, Peasley put together “Play Ball,” an annual yearbook of photos and stories assembled as a keepsake for players and coaches. Peasley has turned over the project to another volunteer, but remains an honorary member of the Little League board of directors.
“Since the beginning of the league, he’s been an ambassador, spreading the word through his articles and photographs,” says league president Darrin Chonos, who fondly recalls getting a copy of the yearbook when he was a player. “Don has always promoted the league. For someone to do it for 59 years on a volunteer basis, it’s pretty incredible. That takes a lot of passion.”
Peasley’s community work is voluminous. He’s handled publicity for numerous organizations, including the Illinois Farm Bureau, written a monthly VFW newsletter, and still serves on several boards, including Woodstock Little League, Woodstock Christian Care, Hearthstone Communities and Woodstock Crimestoppers. “I hope my work inspires others to become involved in their community,” he says.
In August, visitors will be able to view a collection of Peasley’s photographs at the McHenry County Fair. It’s a small tribute to a gentle man who’s given so much to his community.
“His legacy will be that of a community builder,” says daughter Sarah. “He didn’t gravitate to high-paying clients. He made a living covering VFW events and Little League baseball, while sending four kids and his wife back to school. It’s astonishing to me. His name is not on buildings, but it is pervasive. It’s woven into the fabric of Woodstock. Not just anybody can do that.”