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Father and son: at odds but at peace Marine, gay son at UMBC differ on military ban

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If expectation and misunderstanding are ingredients o familial love, then perhaps the story of Col. Fred Peck and his eldest offspring, Scott, gives a glimpse of what being father and son can mean.

But seldom are the complications and joys of blood ties, stretched by divorce and strained by the demands of a military career, so swiftly and publicly exposed.

Last week, Fred Peck, Marine colonel, stood before the Senate Arms Services Committee, the news media and the television-viewing world and revealed himself to be Fred Peck, Marine colonel, father.

With a slightly cracking voice, the colonel testified that although he had discovered only five days earlier that his 24-year-old son, Scott, was gay, he remained firmly opposed to lifting the military ban on homosexuals.

Miles away at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where he is an English major and a staff writer for the school newspaper, Scott Peck was in class when the reporters' calls began rolling in.

Within hours, the two men were sharing a limelight that cast a relentless glare upon their relationship. And, like most blood bonds, theirs is one forged by missed opportunities, unspoken expectations and love.

What follows is the story of how a father and son, who have spent a total of roughly three years together in the past 24, have formed an unlikely alliance that spans both sides of a highly public, national debate.

A handsome man, with blue eyes vivid against a tan earned on a five-month tour as military spokesman in Somalia, Colonel Peck is fit.

No middle-age softness on his compact body, the 44-year-old moves gracefully, lightly, on the balls of his feet like the boxer he once was.

After a tumultuous week, the colonel is relaxed now, on vacation visiting his wife's father in rural Ohio before reporting back to Camp Pendleton, Calif. He likes to talk, and so he does, freely, at length.

Born in Baltimore, the son of a steelworker who went to night school to become an accountant, Colonel Peck grew up in

Millersville.

His father, Lincoln Peck, a Golden Gloves boxing champion and former Marine who fought at Iwo Jima, instilled in his four sons a sense of duty, of obligation toward society, Colonel Peck said. His mother, Dorothy, a graduate of Notre Dame Preparatory School, taught them compassion.

"The old man" had a great deal to do with his decision to turn down an Army ROTC scholarship at the Johns Hopkins University and attend the Naval Academy, Colonel Peck said. "He didn't talk about it much, but my father lived the saying, 'Once a Marine, always a Marine.' "

Days at the Naval Academy were filled with glory and extraordinary pressure. Hours spent playing football and boxing in high school paid off, allowing the young Peck to excel in a competitive environment that demanded and revered physical prowess.

Triumph -- and a secret

A success academically, Midshipman Peck won his plebe middleweight boxing tournament in 1966 and the Naval Academy championship in 1967. In 1969, he again won the championship and the highest honor of all -- the Spike Webb trophy.

But perhaps more than triumph, boxing gave Midshipman Peck entry into "a tight fraternity in what was already a fairly tight fraternity," he said. And it gave him role models.

Former Navy Secretary James Webb and former White House aide Oliver L. North were two years ahead of the young midshipman; both boxed, and both became Marines. "They had a lot to do, too, with my decision to take my commission with the Marines," Colonel Peck said.

But the glow from boxing was diminished when, as a sophomore at the Naval Academy, Midshipman Peck began living with a secret.

In 1968 -- the only year he lost the boxing championship -- his high school sweetheart became pregnant. (Never a quitter, he came back in 1969, but he declined to box in his senior year.) "Missed opportunities," the colonel said, and he sighed.

In 1969, he became the father of a baby boy named Scott.

"They kick you out if you're married, and they kick you out if they can prove paternity," Colonel Peck said.

Staying at the academy was tough, but "I felt that even if I didn't like what I was doing, if I quit, then I would be a quitter for life."

The midshipman and his girlfriend, Michaele Yogan, kept the child a secret for almost two years and were married two days after his graduation.

But as a young officer in the Marines, Colonel Peck spent much of the next decade overseas. Within a year of graduation, he was stationed on a ship off the coast of Vietnam. "It's the closest I got," Colonel Peck said wistfully of the war. "If anything, I feel cheated."

The colonel figures he spent about 1 1/2 years living with his son before -- when Scott was 6 years old -- Michaele asked for a divorce.

After that, the father and first-son relationship became increasingly tenuous as the boy grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla., with his mother and stepfather. For the colonel, it was more tours of duty throughout the United States and overseas. Then a second marriage from which the colonel has two more sons, who are 13 and 15 and live in Missouri, a second divorce and a third marriage in 1984.

"My second wife didn't like Scott and didn't want him around," remembered Colonel Peck. "Once in a great while I would see Scott growing up."

Indeed, father and son were not to see much of each other until the mid-1980s, when Scott was 15 years old and his mother died of cancer.

Dim memories of dad

When his mother died, Scott said, "My father wanted me very much to come live with him" in California, where he and his third wife, Marine Maj. Joanne Schilling, were stationed.

But in addition to remarrying and moving, Scott's mother also had joined the Church of God of Cleveland, Tenn., whose teachings he decribes as "evangelical, Pentecostal and faith healing."

Following the advice of church leaders, his mother refused treatment for her cancer. After her death, Scott refused to live with his father until he graduated from the church's high school.

At this time, Scott's memories of his father were dim, but his vision of the Marine officer and boxing champion was a shiny gold.

"I remember talking into a tape recorder to someone named 'Corky' because that's what my mother called him. But she said, 'Oh, that's Daddy, that's Daddy,' but I didn't know who that was," said Scott.

"And I'm told that for a little while after the divorce I saw him every other weekend, but I don't remember."

A tall, blond man who speaks softly but with certainty and grace after a whirlwind week of unsolicited attention, the younger Peck now lives in East Baltimore with his 29-year-old boyfriend, Robert Hampson, a legal secretary.

Mr. Hampson, thin and dark, with a passion for baseball and antique clocks, is protective, making sure Scott has cigarettes, patting him on the leg when the questions get too personal.

Scott's childhood, filled with the complications that divorce brings -- moves, long-distance relationships, difficult relations with stepparents -- hadn't been particularly easy.

He didn't get along at all with his stepfather, he said. And his mother exhorted him to be like his father.

"She always held my real father up to me and said, 'Be like him.' She probably said a million times, 'Be a man of character like your father.' "

Looking back, "I guess I fictionalized my dad, created what I thought he would be and tried to emulate that," Scott said. "No one could live up to that."

And the youngster was increasingly confused by a growing certainty that he was different from many of his friends.

"I realized I was attracted to men in first grade, so it was a secret all those years," he said. But he felt he couldn't tell anyone, he said: The Church of God taught that homosexuality was caused by demons.

Although he attended school in Florida, Scott spent his vacation visiting his father in 1985. The summer was rocky, Scott said, but the relationship began to improve. For one thing, he got drunk for the first time and yelled at his dad, 'Where were you? I hate you.' "

Colonel Peck looked him in the eye and said, "Well, I love you," Scott remembered.

And Major Schilling -- a woman with sparkling brown eyes and dimples, who calls the colonel her "bestest buddy" -- became his friend. "She has no children. I had lost my mother. I think we filled a need in each other," said Scott.

After attending the Palm Beach Atlantic College, a religious institution, for 1 1/2 years, Scott said, "I began to question my faith." About two years ago, he moved to Baltimore and began attending UMBC.

Back home, two messages

In February, while the colonel was still in Somalia, he'd written a letter to Sen. Sam Nunn stating his strong feelings about the proposed lifting of the ban.

When Colonel Peck returned from the famine-wracked country 10 days ago, his wife, in whom Scott had confided, told him two things:

First, Senator Nunn wanted him to testify before the congressional committee. And second, his son, Scott, was gay.

The colonel has never been one for backing down.

"I had taken a principled stand," he said. "There might have been an easier or a safer course, but once I'm in the game, I'm not going to quit."

In recent months, at UMBC, Scott had been writing editorials criticizing a left-wing gay rights group for exposing public figures who are gay. Because of this, when he heard his father had decided to testify, he feared that radical elements of the gay community might use him to attack the position of his father.

By telling his father in advance -- something he had longed to do, anyway -- Scott decided he would circumvent any retaliation.

And so, in an emotional telephone conversation, on the night before Colonel Peck testified in front of Congress that his son, whom he loved, was a homosexual and despite that he was against lifting the military ban on homosexuals, father and son became a team.

We came to a "gentlemen's agreement to disagree" about lifting the ban, said Scott.

"We agreed that it was the thing to do," said Colonel Peck. "That I had an obligation. That this was the right thing to do. That I loved him."

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