I found Su Peck last month at a fiddle camp in Bar Harbor, Maine.
That’s Su for you.
More than a few years have gone by since she woke up Stonington Borough one Sunday morning, rolling, literally, and with much fanfare and signature foolery, down Water Street, and I wanted to catch up with this tirelessly inventive and somewhat itinerant soul.
What I am recalling was the day, in December 1995, when Su Peck, house painter and Cajun and zydeco dancer and instructor then living in Charlestown, drove her 1982 once-white Toyota pickup that last half-mile or so along Water Street to The Point as the odometer turned on to what was likely the most rare of vehicular readings — 300,000 miles.
Before that last push, she had driven around the borough until the odometer nudged to the cusp, invited friends to a brunch of eggs Benedict and mimosas hosted by Carolyn Yost, who lived on Water Street, tricked out both herself and her truck in parade colors, welcomed a passenger dressed as Santa Claus in the pickup’s bed, and let it roll.
Three years later, the venerable if moribund Toyota, dubbed “the cow truck” due to black paint being applied in Holstein dairy cow patterns to several islands of body rust, and Peck rolled into a moment of national celebrity. Toyota, finally responding to photos and news about the monumental 300,000-mile achievement, dispatched an advertising crew to recreate the milestone event as part of a commercial with the theme of one customer’s loyalty to her pickup.
The 30-second commercial ran nationally for a year, including an airing on Florida TV screens during the Super Bowl, earning Peck about $15,000 in residuals. The truck, long on its last welds and bolts, was shipped to Los Angeles where it was displayed in the office of Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising company.
Peck — named Susan, but ever known as Su, and just to run this Toyota thing into the ground — has gotten around. In the years I’ve known her she’s lived in several towns in this region besides Charlestown, and has been settled in Norwich for a while. Yet, now in her early 60s, she plans to retire in three years or so to Down East Maine, up in Cherryfield in Washington County, the wild blueberry capital, where she and a friend bought a foreclosed house a decade ago and have been restoring it.
She’s still house painting here, and running trivia nights in pubs, lately in Niantic; still dancing and teaching Cajun and zydeco when she has a chance; still fiddling, having taken up the instrument 30 years ago at a Cape Breton festival, then put it down and recently embraced it again in the ambience and tutelage of the Acadia Traditional School of Music and Arts in Maine.
“About 10 years ago I started taking furniture-making classes at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking in Manchester,” she wrote from fiddle camp. “It opened a whole new world. That became part of my retirement plan. I’d like to make sweet little boxes and sell them.” She’s used the same woodworking skills to build cabinetry and rebuild the front porch at that place in Maine.
I can’t remember how long I’ve known her, or how I met her, but perhaps it started with the Toyota parade down Water Street more than three decades ago.
In June 2001, she asked me to deliver the commencement address at an outdoor graduation ceremony in Black Point in Niantic for one — 1 — person. The honoree was Debra Scialabba, from New London, then 46 and a magna cum laude graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. She did not attend the ceremonies in the city, so Peck and several friends arranged a full graduation ceremony here. Someone delivered the benediction and another fellow played the recessional on a folk harp. Others played “Pomp and Circumstance” on piano and recorder.
That’s Su for you.
This is also Su Peck. In 2016, when she was 59, she underwent surgery and radiation for Stage 2 breast cancer. She recovered her health and peerless spirit and dedicated herself to raising money for the American Cancer Society by hiking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim.
“It was a rude awakening, but I don’t want it to define me at all,” she wrote of the cancer. “It was a blip. I don’t think about it at all. They tell me I’m clean and I’m going to believe them. It scared me but look what came out of it. I turned it into a fundraiser for cancer research. I went again (the Grand Canyon) last year and managed to take an hour-and-a-half off my time. I’ve raised a total of $9,000 for cancer research. I’m going again in eight years when I hit 70.”
On Bastille Day — July 14 — each year, she decorates, so to speak, the fence posts at her home in Norwich with Styrofoam “severed” heads. She used to host a party and bonfire on Nov. 5 — Guy Fawkes Day. Soon she’s going hiking in Scotland for a month.
“I know there’s still something fun up my sleeve,” she wrote.
That is so Su.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.