Cameraman Don Peasley
Through his camera lens, Don Peasley captured life in McHenry County for more than 60 years.
Donald D. Peasley, 90, died Friday, May 3, 2013, at his Woodstock home (obituary). The following story originally ran in 2007.
One glance around Don Peasley’s office sums up the last six decades in McHenry County.
From a photo of Peasley with members of the Hebron Green Giants 1952 State Champion Basketball Team, to a black and white of him throwing out the first pitch for a Woodstock Little League season—a league he helped found in 1954—the office walls of the county’s most renown public relations man tell the story as only he can tell it.
An array of plaques, certificates and articles honoring him for humanitarian efforts fill in gaps between the pictures.
Rarely seen in public without his trusty camera hanging from the thick strap around his neck, Peasley has chronicled life and events in McHenry County with photos and articles since moving to Woodstock in 1947.
Both historian and activist, he has documented events while playing a personal role in shaping the county. With stints at the old Woodstock Journal and Woodstock Sentinel, handling radio and print media for the Illinois Farm Bureau, writing a monthly VFW newsletter, doing publicity for Memorial Hospital, serving on the local little league board, chronicling the county fair board and countless other efforts, Peasley is an integral part of local history.
Taking a quick break from this interview to take a call, he answers his dial-up phone with the ever-familiar, “Don Peasley here.” At age 84, his public relations business is still humming.
An Icon is Born
When John Strohm, owner of the Woodstock Journal, hired Peasley as a reporter in 1947, he didn’t know the mentor he would become. He gave Peasley his start and a passion for the job.
“He was the first American journalist to travel inside Russia without escort,” Peasley said proudly of Strohm. “Then, inside Red China a year later.” His mentor also was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, started the National Wildlife Magazine and became President Eisenhower’s agricultural advisor.
With a wealth of contacts and a drive for the business, Peasley left the Journal to venture out on his own. He immediately got requests for work.
“They’d call and say ‘We’ll pay you to do it. Can you come?’” Peasley recalled. “I’d built quite a following.”
With confidence, he began his own public relations business in 1961.
“People came to me,” he said. “They heard about [the business].”
Over time, most Woodstock residents, and many countywide, came to know the kindly man with the camera—always front and center at every event.
“So often I cover things the local newspapers don’t even know about because of my knowledge and my contacts,” Peasley said.
To this day, he writes the VFW newsletter, produces Play Ball catalogue for the local little league and a column, appearing weekly with his photo, in the Northwest Herald.
“To have an outlet like a column is something I appreciate very much,” he said. His opinions, endorsements and insights printed in that column affected decisions and change over the years.
“It was very satisfying writing a column encouraging [Woodstock] District 200 to name schools after Mary Endres and Verda Dierzen—after those two great teachers,” Peasley said of one column he is most proud of.
The Peasley Farm Report
Moving to a county dotted with dairy farms, for Peasley, meant getting knee deep in farm reporting for local newspapers and the Illinois Farm Bureau. Getting the real story took him into the fields and stalls to interview farmers statewide, sending tapes of those discussions to 100 different radio stations, including WGN.
“I’d go out to the farms and interview the fellas,” he said. Peasley made it his job to, “chronicle agriculture and the changes that have taken place and the type of farming we do here.”
Perhaps the biggest change Peasley witnessed is the elimination of prime county farmland for the sake of growth.
“The zoning laws make it too easy for a developer to come in and buy a piece of property,” he said seriously, peering over his spectacles. But there is, he said, “a growing awareness of the need and desire to conserve our soil and water. The agricultural community wants to preserve farmland as farmland and do away with all this development.”
McHenry County, especially to outsiders, is still viewed as farm country, Peasley said.
“In many ways, we still are an agricultural community,” he said. “There are reminders of it in the north and west corners [Marengo, Harvard and Hebron]. There’s still some country out here. Twenty to 50 years from now it will probably be built up.”
His most memorable farming experience is November of 1980 when he, at the request of his mentor, hosted a group of Russian farmers, touring them around dairy farms across the Midwest.
“For ten days, we traveled all over looking at farms,” he said. “Then I brought them back here to the house to meet Fran [his wife].”
Key to the Past
With 60 years of photos and stories, Peasley takes preserving that history for future generations and new residents moving to the county seriously.
Last year, he published “A Collection of Memories—58 Years of Woodstock and McHenry County,” which chronicles the county’s history with text and more than 100 of his photos. An ongoing venture has him printing and identifying photos for the McHenry County Historical Society.
“I started seriously, about 2000, chronicl-ing my photographs, choosing those I thought were historically significant, getting prints made and giving them to the county historical society for their archives,” Peasley said.
Spending hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket for the project, Peasley is through the year 1990. He said it’s worth every penny to have those photos labeled and catalogued for all to see, adding, “boy, they’re significant.”
Always the Humanitarian
Donating his journalistic services, vying for local veterans and offering his time to help others is as integral a part of Peasley’s life as snapping open his shutter.
“Part of it is just being a journalist,” he said. “You need to do things that are necessary and do things you feel are important.”
This year, Peasley received the Studs Terkel Humanitarian Award. He was one of 18 people in the state to get it. He was also recently inducted into the Illinois 4-H Foundation Hall of Fame for 60 years of covering the county’s 4-H clubs. Many of his awards come from thankful organizations.
“I do some things for charity groups,” he said. “Those types of organizations need publicity. They pay me some, but a lot of stuff I do for free.”
A Navy veteran of WWII, Peasley was driven to help veterans by starting a monthly VFW newsletter, saying, “The purpose of that is to help members know what’s going on, what services there are for veterans and what social outlets there are for veterans and their families.”
The Best of Peasley
When asked to pick the most rewarding times of the last six decades, two came to Peasley’s mind immediately: helping his beloved Woodstock earn the All America City Award in 1964 and being part of initial discussions in 1958 to bring Marian Central Catholic High School to the county.
Two of his most memorable photos are easy to spot sitting against the walls of his at-home photo studio. An oversized black and white of President Nixon in 1959 at a Chicago Press Club event and one of President Eisenhower, arms stretched to the sky, at the 1954 Illinois State Fair.
“I guess that was probably my first experience with a big name national personality,” he said.
But never mind discussing the countless political bigwigs he’s met over the years. Just when the interview is winding down, Peasley mentions I did not ask him about the most important aspect of his life, his marriage to wife Fran, a humanitarian as well he’s quick to point out. Her involvement with the Friends of the Woodstock Public Library includes the Fran Peasley Audio Visual Center, located at the facility.
The couple wed, he pointedly said, “February 14th, 1946—Valentine’s Day. Isn’t that romantic?”