Willys Peck, wearing a green visor traditionally associated with newspaper editors, photographed in the library of his Saratoga home. (Courtesy of the MS&SB Collection)
The craftsman-style house on Saratoga Avenue, a few hundred yards from the center of the town, belonged to Willys Peck, one of the more fascinating historical personalities of recent times. Illumination for his rambling garden was provided by a cast iron lamppost that once upon a time had been a San Jose streetlight. Guests often seemed confused. In the front window were three signs. One read “Historian.” Another said, “Attorney at Law.” And a third cautioned, “Beware of the Train.”
Peck had been a resident of the Santa Clara Valley since 1924, and for years wrote “Saratoga Stereopticon,” a column offering vignettes of community history in the Saratoga News, the town’s weekly. He never seemed to run out of things to write about. Along with his wife Betty, a one-time elementary school teacher, the couple was named Saratoga’s “Citizens of the Year” in 1985. Willys served a number of years as president of the town’s historical association and always considered himself, as did most others, the community’s “unofficial historian.”
One didn’t talk long to Peck before it became clear that he looked upon his town as the archetypical American community. Almost certainly he would relate that film stars Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, sisters, grew up in the town. During the Depression, in 1933, Olivia played the leading role in a production of “Alice in Wonderland.” Peck always remembered it warmly, “I shared the stage with her, I played the part of a duck.”
There was just a special ambiance about the town. Peck recalled that in 1946, when actress Donna Reed signed to perform in “A Wonderful Life,” she came to Saratoga to be “re-indoctrinated” with a small town atmosphere. Reed became a classic “Kodak moment” when a photographer from Life magazine took her photo on the town’s main street as she nonchalantly licked her ice cream cone.
The name Willys Peck is well known throughout the annals of Santa Clara Valley. After serving in the Army in the European Theater during World War II, when he participated in the liberation of Dachau (a concentration camp), he used his GI Bill to attend the University of California at Berkeley, where he received a degree in journalism and, thereafter, embarked, in 1949, on an almost legendary career writing for the San Jose Mercury Herald. Soon he was appointed city editor. But, feeling an urge for further education, he attended and graduated from Santa Clara School of the Law in 1962. For a time, he practiced law. And, yes, his office was in his home.
He was still in practice when he was enticed back to the San Jose Mercury News as a reporter and to hold down the city desk until finally retiring from full-time work in 1989. Colleagues gave him a warm sendoff. So thoroughly did he enjoy his retirement party, Peck made it a tradition that was repeated annually. Each year the party got better. After his retirement, he continued to work for the Mercury News on a part-time basis.
Printers ink may have been in his blood. Llewellyn B. Peck, his father, had been a news person. He had been employed on a newspaper in Fresno before signing on with the San Francisco Morning Call. He also edited the Berkeley Gazette. In 1921, he purchased the Saratoga Star. A few years later, upon selling the paper to the Los Gatos Star, he continued on as publisher of the combined newspaper.
Obviously proud of his father’s dedication, Willys Peck maintained every issue of the local newspaper back to the year 1921, buried deep in his house, among a multitude of other treasures. Years ago, these, along with his collection of local telephone books that went back to 1924, were given over to the Saratoga Historical Foundation. There were also three printing presses in the house.
During later years, Peck claimed that collecting was an “inherited trait.” Besides his cherished accumulation of California history, he had a fully operational Edison cylinder phonograph, along with a box brimming with cylinders. Then there was a motion-picture projector that had been used in the Saratoga Theater continuously from 1947 through to the 1980s, and a wicker loge seat from the Los Gatos Theater.
Visitors who ventured into the backyard found an 80-seat amphitheater built by him in the 1950s. This became the venue for numerous dramatic productions, several of which were Shakespearean. In 1956, town leaders gathered there to discuss the incorporation of Saratoga.
One of Peck’s most cherished items of curiosity was his personal garden railroad. He couldn’t resist when the owner of a former Santa Clara Valley prune orchard offered rails for sale. Tracks were put down encircling the Peck house. There was a 7.5-horsepower engine, christened by him the C.P. Huntington, a half-scale model of the historic original that belonged to the Central Pacific Railroad. It was capable of carrying as many as 10 guests.
Willys Peck, born in Oakland in August 1923, passed away at home in 2013. He was 89.
Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett visited with Willys Peck in 2007.