Earl W. McPeak was born in Vancouver, Washington, on Nov. 19, 1922, only five months after then US President Warren G. Harding, while addressing a crowd at the dedication of a memorial site for the composer of the “Star Spangled Banner ,” Francis Scott Key, became the first president to have his voice transmitted by radio.
This weekend, McPeak will become a centenarian, part of a select group of people who have lived for 100 years—or longer. Currently, it’s estimated that there are less than 100,000 centenarians living in the United States.
Part of the Greatest Generation, they have endured some of the most substantial hardships of the late 20th and early 21st centuries – the Great Depression, World War II, pandemics, recession. And, conversely, they have borne witness to some of the most extraordinary sociological and technological advancements in human history.
McPeak, a survivor of the Depression Era, and a combat veteran of World War II, has seen it all – and then some – in his lifetime. But, just because he’s about to celebrate his 100th birthday, don’t think for a minute he’s done just yet. Still physically and mentally spry, and looking at least 20 years younger than his actual chronological age, McPeak will be the first to tell you he plans to keep celebrating birthdays for many years to come.
While each birthday is recognized, and this week’s is certainly cause for extra special celebration, McPeak has become accustomed to an over-the-top birthday blowout once every 10 years – a tradition started by his late second wife, Margie.
She’s the reason he made it, eventually, to Alabama – to settle in Center with his stepdaughter, Holli Larson; to become a valued member of St. Phillips Episcopal Church, in Fort Payne.
But McPeak’s story began some 10 decades ago, more than 2,000 miles away, in the Pacific Northwest.
McPeak’s father, who grew up with 10 brothers and sisters on a farm in Wisconsin, served as a machine gunner in World War I. He transferred to Vancouver, where he met the woman he would marry – McPeak’s mother. The couple would continue the tradition of large families, going on to have eight children, five girls and three boys, of whom McPeak is the oldest.
When McPeak was 3-years old, his family moved to Banks, Ore., and – a few years later – McPeak began elementary school, roughly coinciding with the beginning of the Great Depression. McPeak showed initiative at a young age, convincing his grade school teachers to pay him 15 cents a week to clean chalkboards.
But, even as a child, McPeak had developed a deep love for trucks. He knew he wanted to someday work in a field that involved driving one.
So, a few years later, as a high school student, McPeak managed to scrape together enough money – $250 – to buy a 1930 Model A Ford pickup, which he describes as “a piece of junk,” and started his own business, hauling 10 gallon cans of milk to the Banks, Ore. Cheese factory prior to school each morning.
During these years, McPeak also operated a repair shop for bicycles and crystal radio sets.
After graduating from high school in 1941, McPeak enrolled in Pacific University as a pre-med student, but becoming a doctor wasn’t in the cards for him. He was snow skiing on the slopes of Mount Hood on Dec. 7, 1941, when he learned of an event that day which would change the course of history.
By that time, McPeak had expanded his trucking operation and had recruited some of his former high school classmates to work with him—but, it wouldn’t be long until the business would have to wait. In 1933, McPeak was drafted into the 34th Infantry Division of the US Army.
McPeak was considered too small to carry a Browning automatic rifle, and was initially assigned to what is largely considered to be one of the most dangerous combat positions – point man. McPeak served briefly in North Africa, and was then transferred to Italy for the remainder of his service.
The main thing he remembers about his experience, “it was cold, very cold, especially in the mountains.” McPeak did eventually get moved to another position, this one in the back of the line instead of the front.
Towards the end of the war, he was transferred to southern Italy to help oversee construction of an airport with the Army Corps of Engineers. He left the service, after two years, with the rank of T5 Corporal.
Appropriately enough, McPeak made it back to Oregon on the Fourth of July and—of course—almost immediately went back to work, again embracing the love of trucks he had held since childhood.
Throughout the years, McPeak hauled all manner of products: berries, timber, railroad ties.
Eventually though, McPeak would come full circle and start up a business again hauling milk, called Dairy Express. At the time, he owned three asphalt trucks and 23 milk tankers – transporting milk in Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and Northern California.
It was during these years, after the war, that McPeak met his wife who would become his first wife, Alice, at a dance connected to the town festival in Portland. The two dated for several years and McPeak said he proposed after being prompted to do so by Alice’s father.
“We played penuckle together ever week, he and I, and one day he looked at me and said, ‘don’t’ you think it’s time you married my daughter?’ So, I did.”
The couple had two children together, Shari and Mike. Amongst their other accomplishments, Shari is now retired from the Air Force, where she served as a nurse; and Mike a retired mechanic. Alice died in 1979, due to complications associated with cancer.
McPeak sold Dairy Express a few years earlier, in 1972, and opened a shop to build, repair, and sell over-the-road and stationary stainless steel tanks.
One fateful day, while driving back from Idaho, at the encouragement of his brother, McPeak would stop off for a gathering at a roadside pub, where he met a woman who worked with his sister-in-law – her name was Marjory, and she would become McPeak’s second wife.
It turns out that Marjory had grown up in a small community that McPeak had never heard of before—a place called Gaylesville, Alabama. Marjorie had gotten divorced by the time she met McPeak, but her ex-husband and McPeak would become almost friends. And, he was fully accepted by the rest of the family as well – including Marjorie’s daughter, Holli Larson.
“He put his arms around our family and we put our arms around him and his,” Larson said.
“Dad was still living then and they became friends. The families just meshed. It all blended really well.”
Larson and her family often visited her mother’s hometown of Gaylesville during summers and other special occasions, and it was during one of these visits that Larson would meet and fall in love with a cotton famer. She married him, and the family operated a cotton farm there for 30 years, before moving to Center about 10 years ago.
McPeak fully retired in 1990 and he and Marjory moved to La Conner, Wash., where they could often be found boating in the Puget Sound area.
In 2017, he and Marjory moved to Center to live with Larson. Marjory died in 2019, from natural causes.
The family has been active, for a number of years, at St Phillip’s Episcopal Church in Fort Payne – where a celebration of McPeak’s 100th birthday is planned to take place.
Larson said she plans to use money given for her mother’s memorial to purchase a new nativity scene for the church – McPeak, who has always been good with his hands, will build the manger. Because of course he wants.
Of his life, McPeak says, “It’s been great. I wouldn’t change a thing” and offers the following advice for the whippersnappers out there, those just starting out their journeys in life, “Find something you love to do and work hard at it – you’re only going to get out of it what you put into it, it’s all about perseverance and sweat. But, it can also be sweet.”
The Greatest Generation, indeed.