We spoke with Richard Peck about his great uncle William R. Peck and his lasting impact on the students of Holyoke. Although William passed away when Richard was a child, his great uncle’s legacy has been passed down through family stories.
William R. Peck was the first in his family to go to college, inspired by a Holyoke Public Schools staff member who took a personal interest in his education. The staff member visited the family at their home on Walnut Street, telling them that William was too smart not to go to college. With this encouragement, William decided to attend the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, where many other family members later followed in his footsteps.
After briefly serving as an ensign in the U.S. Navy during World War I, William returned home and began teaching English at Holyoke High School in 1917. Two years later, he was named head of the school’s history department. On April 5, 1920, he was promoted to superintendent at age 25 (the youngest superintendent in Massachusetts history), and he served in that role for 43 years until he retired in 1963. William was seen as a progressive superintendent at the time, fighting for equal pay for female teachers and allowing female teachers to continue teaching after getting married. He also recognized the importance of keeping students in school, so even if a child was failing academically, they weren’t kicked off sports teams. Rather, support was provided to help the student be successful on and off the field. He understood the importance of relationships. He said, “You can’t teach anyone anything who doesn’t respect you. You can’t teach just by talking; you have to get into the play yourself.”
Richard described his great uncle as “quite a story teller, a raconteur, if you will” and spoke about his “outsized, larger than life” personality.
Of the many educational reforms William accomplished during his tenure, perhaps one of the most prophetic was his efforts to close 10 inadequate schools and his successful fight to build new schools to replace them. Holyoke Public Schools later chose to name its newest school the William R. Peck School when it was completed in 1973.
Learn more about William’s many accomplishments in this news article that covers his life and death.
“As Holyoke celebrates its 150th anniversary, we feel fortunate to have so many amazing leaders, teachers, and staff shape the public school system over the years,” said Mayor Josh Garcia.