Perhaps no one was a more familiar presence in this city than Don Peasley, a writer and photographer whose work documenting events in Woodstock and McHenry County in eight separate decades made him a de facto local historian in addition to a journalist, publicist and columnist. He died May 3 at age 90, never having retired from the profession that brought him to Woodstock in the late 1940s. Here, we remember the legacy of the man many called “Mr. Woodstock.”
After 66 years living in and writing about Woodstock and McHenry County, longtime journalist, photographer and historian Don Peasley passed away May 3.
Peasley, who was 90, was referred to affectionately as “Mr. Woodstock” due to the thousands of images and words he captured from Woodstock residents since 1947.
“When I arrived at WGN Radio in 1960, he was one of the first people to call to welcome me,” recalled Orion Samuelson, a broadcaster most widely known for hosting the U.S. Farm Report. “What stood out most is the fact that he actually called.”
The professional relationship between Samuelson and Peasley quickly blossomed into a friendship that lasted 53 years.
“The guy was as warm and as human as any person could be,” Samuelson said.
When Samuelson was in Woodstock in March to sign his book, “The Big O,” at Read Between the Lynes, he and Peasley enjoyed dinner together one last time.
“We were reminiscing,” Samuelson recalled, “about Harvard Milk Days, about old times.”
This year, Harvard Milk Days won’t be the same for Samuelson, who said it will feel strange to look out at the crowd and not see Peasley with his trusty camera in hand.
Samuelson said he is grateful to have had his photograph taken with Peasley at the McHenry County Farm Bureau’s 100th anniversary last year.
During the event, Samuelson asked Peasley for a picture with him. After Peasley took “at least 6,000” photos of him, Samuelson joked, it was time for Peasley to be on the other end of the camera.
“When [I asked], he said ‘Well, why would you want to do that?” Samuelson said, laughing. “I said, ‘To get even with you.’”
The photo, along with several other photos Peasley had taken over the years, ended up in Samuelson’s book.
Mel Von Bergen, owner of Von Bergen’s Country Market, Hebron, said he first met Peasley 50 years ago.
“I always found him to be very knowledgeable on a vast array of topics,” he said. “I considered Don a very good friend of mine.”
Von Bergen said he was continually amazed with Peasley’s ability to talk economics, politics, crops and livestock or sports at a moment’s notice.
“He always did his homework,” Von Bergen said. “I gained a lot of respect for him as an individual … He is going to be missed.”
Dan Volkers, manager at the McHenry County Farm Bureau, said Peasley was an advocate for the agricultural community for many years. More importantly, however, Volkers said “Don probably represents the most gentle, kind, sincere personality” he has known.
Woodstock Mayor Brian Sager said he considered Peasley a mentor and praised his ability to connect with various players within the community.
Peasley co-founded the Woodstock Little League, established the Woodstock VFW News and was instrumental in Woodstock’s success in becoming an All-America City. His contributions spanned beyond a single focus or generation.
Sager said Peasley was an exceptional source of information and was always willing to share his knowledge.
“Don understood as well as anybody that a community worked when people worked together,” Sager said. “He constantly lived that way.”
Sager said Peasley always gave honest, open evaluations when asked. Peasley’s main concern, Sager said, was how a decision, project or event would impact Woodstock residents. Sager said when future generations write a history of the key influencers, builders and shapers of the Woodstock community, he has no doubt Peasley will be toward the top of most people’s lists.
“Don Peasley was often called ‘Mr. Woodstock,’” Sager said. “That name wasn’t just something that was politely said. Don earned it.”
Marybeth Vogrinc, Peasley’s assistant since 1980, said Peasley had an amazing knack for telling stories. His ability to connect with people was perhaps his greatest talent, however. When the two would have lunch together, Vogrinc was tasked with taking dictation.
“People would always come up to say ‘Hi’ and start up a conversation,” she said, joking that if it wasn’t for those conversations, she would have never been able to finish her lunches.
She said Peasley took great pleasure in finding the next big scoop.
“He’d keep a paper and pencil on his nightstand to write down anything he thought of during the night,” Vogrinc said. “He was always thinking about the next story.”
Howard Engstrom, who met Peasley as a staff member at Woodstock Christian Care, now Hearthstone Communities, said Peasley’s patience and charitable nature made him a great journalist and friend.