PALM HARBOR — Eugene Peiser believed in the American dream, which for him meant freedom to pursue his independence. As a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service, he oversaw the processing of illegal refugees, and was moved by their determination to come to the United States.
An admirer of President Ronald Reagan, he relished his meetings with the former president in the Oval Office. But when officials considered Mr. Peiser to head the Food and Drug Administration, he told them he would not play politics with the position.
They chose someone else.
As an expert on drug packaging laws, he testified for and against the FDA, and for and against pharmaceutical companies. In the last election, the man who kept a large photo of Reagan in his home office voted for Barack Obama.
He wanted change, his family said.
Mr. Peiser, a pharmacist who turned his government experience into a profitable consulting business, died Feb. 3, of cardiac arrest. He was 79.
"I was a tough one and did not take crap from anyone," he wrote in his memoirs.
While in the University of Tennessee's pharmacy school, he met Rita Camin, who wanted to be an optometrist. They went on a double date. His first words when he saw her: "You sure are cute."
He joined the Army Reserve during the Korean War, an act that would influence the rest of his career. After several years of service and a stint managing a Walgreens store, he opened Peiser's Prescription Shop in Nashville.
In 1956, with the Vietnam conflict ratcheting up, Mr. Peiser was told he might be called back to active duty. Instead, he applied for a commission with the reserves corps of the Public Health Service.
The government agreed, thus allowing Mr. Peiser to run his apothecary until the early 1970s. He then joined a cousin's drug manufacturing business.
In the mid 1970s, the FDA was tightening standards on drug manufacturing and distribution, and providers needed guidance. Mr. Peiser, who had been studying the new standards religiously, decided to sponsor a training seminar with his cousin in Nashville. The first meeting drew 280 people, including the FDA's national head of compliance.
Soon, Mr. Peiser was giving seminars to pharmaceutical companies and purveyors of diets and health-related devices on how to keep their practices safe and within the tougher federal regulations. "His main focus was providing for safety of the people taking the products," said his son, Harold Peiser, 51, who still works for his father's consulting business. .
By the late 1970s, Mr. Peiser's clients included virtually every major drug supplier and the FDA. Those duties were diverted when President Jimmy Carter, facing an influx of Cuban and Haitian refugees, sent Mr. Peiser to Puerto Rico and Miami.
"Most of the detainees were black or brown and all were poor with no belongings," Mr. Peiser wrote. "They had fled Cuba and Haiti on rafts, boats, tire tubes and anything that would float. Just to get to America. We should always appreciate what the USA meant to us and our freedom. Never forget this."
In his role with the health service, Mr. Peiser worked under then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and met with Reagan. (He admired both men greatly, and ranked working with them were among his life's highlights.) Reagan administration officials suggested he be considered to head the FDA.
"Met with Ed Meese in the White House and we did not see eye to eye," Mr. Peiser wrote. "His words were, 'Now Gene, that is not what we are looking for.'
"They wanted a YES man, & I have never been one."
After being considered to lead the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and passed over, Mr. Peiser, his family and their four dogs moved to Palm Harbor. He operated Peiser & Associates, a consulting business that has reached clients in at least 34 states, Puerto Rico, Haiti and Israel. He never retired.
Mr. Peiser wrote his life story last year for family members, packaging it like a consultant's report. He handed out copies in January, a few weeks before his heart attack.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]