Joining family members from across the map, hundreds of Rosendalers and other residents of Ulster County turned out at the SUNY Ulster gymnasium last Saturday to pay tribute to the memory of Anita Williams Peck (June 5, 1940-January 26, 2019). The widow of Theodore G. Peck IV, she was the daughter of the late Walter G. and Marianne K. Williams and granddaughter of Gustave Williams, the Finnish immigrant who founded the Williams Lake Hotel in Binnewater in 1929.
From the age of 11 until she left for college at the University of Vermont in 1958, young Anita was tasked with learning all the entry-level jobs at Williams Lake, scooping ice cream and selling hot dogs, putting away the lakeside furniture and water toys. Staying in the family business wasn’t her original goal. But when she took over the management of the hotel upon her father’s death in 1987, she did it with the same energy and commitment that she gave to all her life’s endeavors. While Williams Lake was never quite a cash cow, Anita keep it afloat for decades by putting in long hours, never considering any task beneath her and expecting all her employees to sustain a similar work ethic.
At the memorial event, former employees gathered in clusters to reminisce about how Anita had worked side-by-side and formed friendships with them that lasted for decades. “She was a wonderful person, very meticulous,” said Jo-Ann Navarra. “She was one of the smartest women I’ve ever met.” Sue Constable related how she and her late partner, Tim Rowell, who had worked as a chef at Williams Lake, received nothing but support and good advice from Anita when they quit their jobs to start up their own business, the Crossroads Deli. “You could ask her anything. Her business sense was very good… When Tim got ill, she helped him financially.” The two women later went on to work together as volunteers at the Rosendale Pickle Festival, where Anita was revered as the “Pickle Princess” and “the original one-woman Ulster County booster club.”
She also made Williams Lake a beloved community hub, as speaker after speaker at the memorial celebration stepped up to testify. “How many residents got their first jobs or fell in love at the Lake?” asked Tim Allred, vice president of Hudson River Valley Resorts, the group that now owns the hotel site and is developing it into a modern eco-friendly resort. He related how Anita had made him feel welcome from the first time that he visited the Lake, and helped him and his family acclimate when they moved to the area. “You couldn’t ask for a better person to introduce you to the neighborhood.”
Allred’s HRVR colleague Brian Cafferty affirmed Anita’s reputation for being a “gracious hostess.” He grew up in the area; his mother had been a Williams Lake employee, and Brian had long been a member of the Beach Club that allowed local residents to share use of the Lake with hotel guests. “I’ve known her most of my life,” Cafferty said. “She was a force of nature; she was a volunteer; she was a philanthropist; and I was fortunate enough to be her friend.” After the 2006 sale of the hotel, lake and grounds to HRVR – or rather, what remained of the grounds after she donated more than 400 acres to the Rondout/Esopus Land Conservancy, plus ten acres of endangered Indiana bat habitat to the Nature Conservancy – Anita moved into a house on the far side of the Lake from the hotel buildings. Whenever she would spot his car in the parking lot, Cafferty reported, Anita would text him an invitation to stop in: “Whatever you’re doing, remember: The bar’s open.”
Even after divesting herself of the resort business, Anita worked full-time in the hospitality industry, promoting regional tourism in partnership with Ernie Bruno and Cathy Ellis through Hudson River Valley Tours. Speaker Lisa Conway, president of the tourism business organization Skål International USA, shared stories of working with Anita at conferences around the globe, noting that her notoriously exacting bookkeeping skills had seen good use as an elected auditor for Skål: “She helped us through a rough patch,” Conway said.
Rosendale Theatre director Ann Citron also recalled Anita’s penchant for being “very exact” when it was her night to serve as volunteer shift leader, staying as late as need be to reconcile ticket and concession sales “if it was a penny off.” Besides making financial contributions to help purchase the Theatre’s first digital projection equipment and to renovate the lobby bathroom, Anita was also a longtime board member – only one of a list far too long to enumerate of not-for-profit boards on which she served and organizations that she helped out on a regular basis. Her philanthropic activities started early on; her lifelong friend Judy Mathews spoke fondly of their first assignment as Junior League of Kingston members, when Anita was heavily pregnant with her son Ted, to research historic houses in Tuthilltown – a project that led to the publication of a book titled Early Architecture in Ulster County. “She had an easy laugh and a magnanimous spirit,” Mathews said.
Though she seemed to have a hand in every good local cause, Anita Williams Peck’s primary philanthropic interests included historic preservation, cancer charities, libraries and education. She served on the Rondout Valley Central Schools’ Board of Education for eleven years, six of them as president. Her daughter, Jennifer Patton, recalled how her mother would never refuse to take a call from a parent in the district, no matter how late the hour. Anita told young Jennifer, “I signed up for this; this is what I do. Everybody deserves to be heard.” Patton went on to describe how the Lake and hotel were made available on a regular basis for Christmas parties for needy Rosendale families, for AIDS auctions, for cross-country ski races and running meets, and for local first responders for practice sessions: “Water rescues, cave rescues, ice rescues; she allowed them to set buildings on fire,” she recalled, noting that after her stroke in late January, “One of the first people to come to my Mom’s aid was one of those people who got trained at the Lake.”
Anita also had a long and deep relationship with SUNY Ulster, serving on the board of its foundation for many years, with three terms as chair. Of all her many philanthropic projects, possibly the one closest to her heart was a scholarship fund that she endowed nine years ago through the Ulster Community College Foundation to enable Kingston High School to hold an annual Public Speaking Competition. “She told me, ‘You wanna know how come Obama got elected? Because he knew how to speak. That man was an amazing orator,’” Patton related. At the competitions, “It was incredible to watch these kids get up there to face their fears.” Anita took great pride in the ongoing successes of the competition winners, many of whom stayed in touch with her – including “Jimmy DeCicco, who was on Shark Tank pitching his business. He said that being in the Public Speaking Competition changed everything for him.”
One fact on which all the speakers at the memorial agreed was that Anita Williams Peck seemed to thrive on community service. “The last ten years were the best of her life, because she had more time to volunteer,” said her daughter. “Here’s what my mother would say if she heard anyone say that her death would leave a hole: She would challenge all of you to look for opportunities to do more, to be more.” On their way out of the auditorium, attendees were offered rubber bracelets to take home. On them were inscribed the words: “Be like Anita.”
In lieu of flowers, contributions in her memory may be made to the Anita Williams Peck Fund, Ulster Community College Foundation, Inc., 491 Cottekill Road, Stone Ridge, NY 12484, or online at www.sunyulster.edu/foundation/anitawilliamspeck.