At 90 years old, Stuart Peckham has the health of a 72-year-old. At least, that's what his doctor told him, and I believe it. His voice is as clear as his mind. His recollection of dates is remarkable.
"March 8, 1945: the end of the war in Europe," he proclaimed. "I never forget that date. I was a liberator. I could have gone home then, but I stayed for a while."
The reason he stayed hints at the character of a man who's been many things in his life: a soldier, a singer, a builder, a Realtor, an insurance broker, a chaplain, a business owner, an auctioneer, a teacher and more. But in March 1945 he was first a humanitarian, a 21-year-old soldier determined to bring dignity to that which was so undignified.
As a member of the Highland Light Infantry 9th Brigade of the Canadian Army, Peckham stayed to help bury the countless dead left in concentration camps, using a bulldozer to push the hardened earth over the fragile remains.
"I buried thousands," he reflected.
Born in Canada in 1924, the son of Polish Jews, he lost 21 family members in the Holocaust, suffered through the Great Depression and, like so many of his generation, persevered through it all with a deeper appreciation of humanity and a greater desire for success.
"God has given me so many talents," he said.
I met Mr. P, as he likes to be called, at his Weeki Wachee home to discuss business. As an account executive at WWJB radio in Brooksville, I had fielded a call from him an hour and a half earlier. He had called to purchase advertising for his upcoming Celebration Auction, and after a 20-minute phone conversation I knew he was someone I needed to meet in person.
His wife of more than 30 years, Hazel, answered the door and directed me to the living room, where I took a seat on the couch. A few moments later, a slight man made taller by his high ball cap with the words "World War II Veteran" emblazoned across the front joined me, along with his loyal friend Buddy the terrier.
As if it weren't already clear to me, Mr. P is a man with a story to tell. During our two-hour conversation, I learned in short order that despite his Jewish heritage he was raised a Christian and became a U.S. citizen in 1955 — something of which he is very proud, but he regrets not maintaining dual Canadian citizenship. He speaks three languages: English, French and Dutch. He landed at D-Day; he feels awful at the treatment of Vietnam and Korean War veterans; he's owned his own insurance company; started his own real estate school; dabbled in politics, and made his first buck selling 1-cent hot dogs from a food cart when he was 13 years old. He quoted Martin Luther King Jr., General George S. Patton and the Bible — mostly the Bible.
"I'm a very Bible-oriented man," he said.
About an hour into our conversation (mostly him talking), he caught me taking notes and wondered what I was doing. I told him that I too have other talents, one of which is writing. Another spark was lit.
"Hazel, bring me a couple of my books to show this young lady."
Of course. He is also a writer. He's written 15 books, six of which were published. His books cover everything from the art of negotiation to his love of pets and the businesses of insurance and real estate.
"Hazel, would you mind bringing me something to drink? You know what I like."
She returned with a jelly jar full of a concoction of his own creation.
"I'm not really a drinking man, but this calms me," Mr. P said. "Hazel, bring Cherie a little sample."
One-third sweet blackberry wine and two-thirds sweet tea over ice. I had to admit it was pretty good.
"Hazel, bring that picture of me so I can show her," he said. (I got the sense that Hazel had angel wings beneath her shirt.) "Careful," he warned me, "you may fall in love."
Hazel brought him an old black-and-white to show me. Indeed, Stuart Peckham was quite a handsome man in his day.
After a few more pleasantries, "Okay, let's talk business," he finally said.
His demeanor shifted. Perhaps I should have read his book on negotiating first.
After he gave me a quick lecture about the best negotiations being a win for everyone, we tussled our way to an agreement once I threw in a few bonus commercials at no charge. It seemed the stage was now set for his final hurrah.
A collector for more than 75 years, Mr. P says that of everything he's been and done, auctioneering is his favorite.
"It's just so much fun," he exuded.
My guess is that it has something to do with commanding an audience, being the center of attention and of making a deal. Mr. P loves to make a deal.
But he made clear to me that this auction will not be just any auction. He will be liquidating "the jewels of my life," including his personal collection of antique Russian plates, numerous collector's items and other fine china.
A professional auctioneer since 1974, Mr. P will be calling his last auction.
"I'm realistic. I'm 90 years old, and you just never know. I must get rid of it now, before it becomes her problem," he said, motioning to Hazel.
After promising him that I would do everything I could to ensure that his auction was a success, he asked me to help him up so he could escort me to the door. I thanked Hazel for the concoction and said goodbye to Buddy.
Then Mr. P left me with some departing words.
"I want this auction to be the auction of my life!" he exclaimed. "It must be done with vigor, honor and integrity."
I couldn't imagine him doing it any other way.
Cherie Miller is a freelance writer and account executive for WWJB-AM/WXJB-FM radio in Brooksville.