She's been called the Legend.
Over the past 27 years, as her husband made headlines pushing the Penny for Pasco sales tax and wrangling with politicians, Cathy Peckett quietly shaped lives as the owner of Kids' Stuff Preschool. Lots of people know former assistant school superintendent Ray Gadd. He's the life of every party, always quick with a quote for us reporters, who exchange knowing smiles when government types bicker because it means our stories get prominent play.
But he's never been called legendary. That honor rightfully goes to the gentle Peckett, who is retiring after more than a quarter century raising multiple generations of solid citizens who learned to work hard, obey rules, share toys and play nicely with others.
Her reputation as a top-notch educator was so well known that when Peckett showed up for elbow surgery about a decade ago, operating room nurse Cathy Franzen warned the doctor that he'd better take care of her. "She's raised almost every kid in Land O'Lakes," said Franzen, whose children attended Peckett's preschool. "She's a legend."
A former kindergarten teacher, Peckett, 58, founded Kids' Stuff in 1984 with her late father, Irv. It was an era of few working moms and even fewer child care options for those who did.
Unlike many centers that back then resembled babysitting services, Kids' Stuff was set up to run like a school. Instead of being yanked from one class into another on their birthdays, preschoolers moved as a group in sync with the public school calendar.
"That way they bond as a class," Peckett explained a few years ago as I was choosing a preschool for my toddler.
Colleagues said Peckett was among the first to bring professionalism to an industry that in 1984 wasn't even licensed.
She established a curriculum for children of every age, even those still in diapers. She considered her staff as teachers, training them in the latest methods and providing paid sick days and benefits. Turnover is a key indicator of a center's quality. At Peckett's, many have worked there for a decade.
"She's always been very hands-on with her staff, with kids, with families," said Carolyn Arnold, who ran Wee Wisdom preschool when Peckett started Kids' Stuff. "And that's what made her so successful."
Most days, Peckett would rise before dawn to exercise and open Kids' Stuff. Each night she hauled home garbage bags of cleaning cloths to launder and return the next day.
Though a shrewd businesswoman, Peckett never lost her love for teaching. She took joy in dyeing eggs each spring and giving hayrides each fall. Rising sixth-graders about to leave Kids' Stuff's afternoon care program looked forward to a farewell breakfast with "Miss Cathy."
"She saw the welfare of the kids as her bottom line and not the dollar," Arnold said. "She truly cared about how everybody got along."
When the first black child enrolled at Kids' Stuff, Peckett was concerned about how her then-lily white clientele would respond.
Peckett framed it as a positive. By the time the kid arrived, he was a celebrity. And whenever parents of special-needs kids inquired about enrollment, Peckett never said, "Sorry, we're full," unless it was true.
Anyone who is around children for longer than five minutes knows there's no limit to the embarrassing situations their antics can create. Despite plenty over the years, employees never saw Peckett lose her cool.
While taking parents on a tour, Peckett entered a classroom one time to find a surprise.
"A look of horror came over her face," recalled longtime staffer Jackie Genovese. "We were all having such fun that we did not realize the children had taped each other's mouths closed."
Without missing a beat, Peckett gave a little lesson about wasting tape and went on with the tour.
"Cathy never mentioned the event, but we were sharp enough to know that we should never let the children tape their mouths closed again," Genovese said.
If she had any faults, those who know her say, it was taking her work too seriously.
During a stubborn case of head lice at the school, the usually chipper Peckett arrived at work one day dog tired. The cause? Nightmares about head lice that looked like black olives.
"Everyone knew she despised black olives," Genovese said.
Even amid the day-to-day grind of running a preschool, Peckett worked to make her community a better place. Each year residents attending the Land O'Lakes Flapjack Festival saw a float topped with waving children from Kids' Stuff. She also held canned food drives for Christian Social Services and held a spring Hop-A-Thon to raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. When a family lost their home in a 2009 fire, Peckett rallied to gather clothes and food.
My son, now a kindergartener, and I would arrive each day to a smiling Miss Cathy. It always felt as if I had dropped him off at a the home of a trusted friend.
When he and about 70 other kids graduated from prekindergarten this past spring, she correctly called out the name of every child. Without notes.
It seemed as if the legend would continue forever.
Then, one Friday night in June, my cell phone rang.
"I've sold the school," she said. Hearing the silence on my end, she explained. "I've been doing this for 27 years; I'm tired."
She reassured me that new owners Chad and Liz Elias were hand-picked, and the current staff would remain.
Despite the tears that have been shed, including Miss Cathy's, she deserves a rest.
She recently welcomed her first grandchild and needs to focus on family. She needs time to putter in her backyard garden, where she's often found working well after sunset.
Peckett agreed to stay on long enough to help the new owners settle into the school year. On Thursday, staff and students planted a lavender crepe myrtle tree in her honor and sang the Kids' Stuff alma mater. Staff even awarded her a diploma.
She has promised to come back and substitute teach.
That's good news. May the Legend live on.