NEW PORT RICHEY — Margaret Peek was the tough coach of science; challenging, absolutely dedicated, intimidating to some. Peek, who died Saturday (Nov. 10, 2012) at 64 after a battle with cancer, was not a huggy person. But she cared deeply and, for 36 years, she taught students at Gulf High School the worlds of biology, chemistry and physics, her passion for science infectious, as was her smart, dry wit. Students loved Peek — who was a finalist to be on the ill-fated 1986 Challenger space shuttle — so much they nominated her to be the Gulf teacher of the year four times. And now, after her death, the school is creating a scholarship in Peek's name.
"There are kids that go on to be doctors and scientists that credit their love of science, their success, their understanding to what they learned in her classroom," said Linda Dale, who has taught science at Gulf for 20 years.
She said Peek held her students and colleagues to the highest standards. Peek, who helped install Gulf's International Baccalaureate program, didn't suffer chitchat or fools and could look intimidating, with her severe short hair and sharp, self assured gaze. Friends described her as "brilliant," "private," "dedicated," "the ultimate professional."
But, Dale said, she also had another side, this kindness that was true and sincere and not showy. Dale said Peek was an amazing source of strength and support after Dale's husband died and then, a few years ago, when Dale herself was diagnosed with cancer. Peek was protective of her when she was sick, telling her to rest. She would say things like, "What are you doing here in the school when you are supposed to be home?" and "Are you seriously driving in that kind of pain?"
"It's hard to describe this kind of quiet compassion and support that doesn't really have any words," Dale said. "It's just there and you know it."
Douglas Stobbs, who has taught science at Gulf for 21 years, said he knew two Peeks: the tough one shown to the world, and the other one who allowed her eyes to water when talking about students, their achievements and hardships.
"Very few people get the chance to experience somebody like Margaret," Stobbs said. "Those of us at Gulf High School were lucky enough to do that."
Peek, who had no children and is survived by her brother and sister, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, said her friend, Nancy Kinnunen. She beat it and had several years of being well. Peek, who once coached high school softball and tennis, spent her free time fly fishing, camping, golfing, horseback riding, cooking and traveling. But two years ago, the cancer came back in her liver. She was so sick she had to retire.
"She couldn't go on, she was too weak — although she definitely wanted to," Kinnunen said.
Peek's students and colleagues wouldn't have had her for as long as they did if things had gone differently. In 1985, Peek was one of 250 teachers across the nation — and five in Florida — to be chosen as finalists for NASA's Teacher in Space program. A teacher from New Hampshire was selected, Christa McAuliffe, and Peek and her students watched on Jan. 28, 1986, as McAuliffe and her six crew members died when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded after lift off.
"I wanted to be on that thing so badly. Standing there, watching it launch, and then — it's gone," Peek told a Fox 13 reporter in 2006 for the 20th anniversary of the disaster.
"It's just," she said and paused, "you're empty."
But even after that tragedy, witnessing the risk, Peek said if NASA had continued the program, she would have applied.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.