SARATOGA -- Willys Peck, the grand impresario of Saratoga history and a claimant to the title of the wittiest valley headline writer, died Tuesday afternoon at his beloved Saratoga home. He was 89, and was looking forward to "Jeopardy," his favorite program.

By turns historian, lawyer, newspaperman, train buff and playwright, Peck came as close to being a Renaissance man as Silicon Valley allowed. His roots were deep in his hometown of Saratoga, where he lived with his wife, Betty, on an acre and a quarter.

The veteran newspaperman had largely been confined to a hospital bed at home and in nursing facilities after suffering a compound fracture in November. His family said he lost consciousness and died shortly after 4 p.m.

"He was the most perfect man and the most perfect husband and had such a rich, wonderful life," said Betty Peck. "He was ready to walk through the Pearly Gates."

Peck acted the lead, or sometimes the comic foil, in a lifetime play of his own design. Well into his 80s, he habitually wore the green visor of a veteran newspaper copy editor. His instinct for the gently satirical pun was unmatched.

A master at work

"When you watched Willys craft headlines, you knew you were watching the master at work," said Linda Zavoral, a Mercury News editor who was Peck's copy desk supervisor until he retired from full-time work in 1989.


Advertisement

"He would call up a story in the computer directory, then lean back in his chair -- green eyeshade on, always -- and puff slowly on his pipe, pondering the options. A literary reference, perhaps? A pun? Something alliterative?"

The pipe became such a part of Peck's method that when the Mercury News moved to ban smoking in the newsroom, a number of his fellow copy editors worried it would impair Peck's ingenuity. It did not.

Peck wrote the single best one-two headline punch in the history of the newspaper when the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors attempted to name the county's new light rail system "SC2AT," for Santa Clara County Area Transit.

When the newspaper ran a story saying that "scat" was another name for animal dung, Peck's headline read, "Dung, dung, dung, Goes the Trolley."

Then, after the board decided to abandon a name and simply call it "light rail," Peck followed with an equally witty second headline: "No Streetcar Name Desired."

Willys Peck was born in August 1923 in Oakland, the son of Llewellyn Peck, a printer and owner of the Saratoga Star, and his wife, Lida.

Journalistic career

From early on, Willys Peck was marinated in the craft of journalism. After serving in the Army during World War II, where he helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp, he graduated with a degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.

He quickly got a job as a stringer with the San Jose Mercury-Herald, covering West Valley towns. It was as a newspaperman that he met his wife, Betty, a third-grade Los Gatos teacher who told him that he needed to have a house before she'd marry him.

Acting on a tip from his aunt, Peck spent $11,000 in 1950 on the Craftsman home on Saratoga Avenue that the family occupied for six decades. He converted the backyard into a kind of festival, with a stage and half-scale model of the C.P. Huntington, an early California steam engine.

The stage let him put on his own plays, including a piece he wrote in the 1950s, "How Subdivided is My Valley." He also enlisted his fellow journalists to act in a full-scale presentation of "Romeo and Juliet," even building a balcony.

In 1962, Peck obtained a law degree from the Santa Clara University Law School, and he eventually ran a single-man civil practice from his home. But he returned to his first love -- journalism -- continuing to work night shifts until he retired.

Peck and his wife were named Saratoga Citizens of the Year in 1985. And for many years he was the president of the Saratoga Historical Society. He was also a Shakespeare scholar and had amassed a collection of the first 50 years of Punch, the British humor magazine.

Peck is survived by his wife; his son, Bill, of Santa Clara; his daughter, Anna, of Saratoga; and two grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Staff writer Tracy Seipel contributed to this report.