ROCHESTER, N.Y.—Russell A. Peck, a legendary English teacher who taught longer than any professor in the history of the University of Rochester, died at age 89 on Feb. 20, 2023. A vigorous “force of nature,” Peck didn’t believe in slowing down. He once said, “I feel better when I’m going at a fast pace. . . . The busier I am the better I feel.” Until the end of his rich and full life, Peck was happiest when working hard on ambitious projects that fired his imagination and broke the mold of the traditional classroom–projects like his famous Theater in London trips, taken over a span of 30 years, in which students would see 25 diverse plays in under 2 weeks at a whirlwind pace.
Growing up on the family dairy farm near Riverton, Wyoming inculcated in Peck a strong American work ethic. As a boy of 7, he rose at 5:00 am to milk the cows and deliver the milk before school. After tackling humans as well as cows to become high school football captain and also Valedictorian, Peck attended Princeton where he created a barbershop quartet “The Princeton Boomerangs,” with the motto “We always bounce back.” Going on to earn a Ph.D. in English from Indiana University, Russell fell in love with Ruth Demaree, a piano student earning her masters in music. After a romantic wedding in Paris, the couple began a long and vibrant partnership that lent great support to Russell’s career. In 1961, when Peck began teaching as an Instructor at the University of Rochester, he claimed he accepted the job because he liked snow.
The John Hall Deane Professor of Rhetoric and Literature, Peck was internationally known as an authority on Middle English literature, especially works by Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and Malory. Peck edited the seminal three volume edition of John Gower’s The Confessio Amantis and explicated it in his book Kingship and Common Profit. Peck had broad academic interests and publications ranging from Arthurian romance, folklore, and fairy tales, to film, cognitive theory and pedagogy. Peck’s research was supported and honored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Medieval Academy of America.
Peck described himself as “a secular priest,” and he pursued teaching as a passionate calling. A phenomenal teacher, Professor Peck was beloved by students for his boundless energy, buoyant enthusiasm, effervescent vitality, intellectual curiosity, and playful wit. His hugely popular courses on Chaucer and “Myth and Fairy Tale, and Their Continuing Role in Pop Culture” were often overenrolled. Peck’s dramatic orations of Middle English and his exuberant and charismatic personality—prompting him spontaneously to burst into song or dance on his desk– riveted his students’ attention.
Funded by a grant from French’s Mustard Co., Peck became fondly known as “The Mustard Professor” when he became a Visiting Professor at the University of Hull in the UK from 1967-68. Peck returned from abroad enlivened by fresh, bold, and innovative ideas to bring literature to life for his students. As ringmaster, he staged a Medieval spring festival on campus called “Floralia” where students danced around May poles and jousted in tournaments. In 1970, he founded the Medieval House, where residents sponsored readings in Middle English, hosted lectures, and prepared sumptuous Medieval banquets, complete with costumes, madrigals, and raucous toasts. He took students on fishing trips where they would cast lines of thought, provoked by reading selections from The Compleat Angler, Moby Dick, and Hemingway. Peck launched the school year with a trip to Stratford to see Shakespeare plays and concluded it with a climactic English Department diploma ceremony that featured a slide show of every graduating senior, faculty readings, and songs. One poem read “The English Major prepares for Life”—and indeed, by engaging students in stimulating conversations on walks by Lake Ontario or on sledding parties at Highland Park, Peck did just that.
Among his numerous awards for excellence in teaching, Peck won the national E. Harris Harbison Award for Gifted Teaching in 1972 from the Danforth Foundation. While living the life of the mind, Peck remained rooted to the earth. With the prize money, he purchased a 350-acre farm in Canada’s upper Ottawa Valley, which he used as an opportunity to recreate his own farm experience for his children, and to extend the boundaries of his classroom in rejuvenating ways. Peck and students of Medieval Romance would intensively study Chaucer or Shakespeare in between breaks to chop wood or slop the pigs. The rustic setting that removed distractions like T.V. and other civilized luxuries like a washing machine or dishwasher forged close bonds among family members and students, who grew to rely on one another for entertainment and support.
Although discontinuing his teaching in 2014, Peck never fully retired from Morey Hall. He remained active in curating the comprehensive collection of Medieval texts he acquired to establish the University’s Robbins Library. He secured his eighth NEH grant to support The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages, a non-profit organization he founded in 1990 with the mission of editing and publishing previously unpublished Medieval texts for classroom use. The project has published over 80 volumes, with more in the works. Perhaps closest to his heart, Peck continued after his retirement to lead six more Theater in London Seminars through the Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries.
For all his academic achievements and accolades, Peck considered his greatest legacy his students and his descendants. He was a prolific letter writer and corresponded with students, friends, and family throughout his life. Russell is survived by his devoted wife Ruth of 64 years, his children Demaree, Nathan, and Gunther, his 10 grandchildren Chris, Caleb, Catherine, Cody, Elijah, Lindsey, Savannah, Gabriel, Nathaniel, and Miranda, and one great-grandchild James.
Russell will be lovingly remembered as a dedicated family man, an inventive storyteller, a punster, writer of limericks, a fiercely competitive Pinochle player, an art lover, a bird enthusiast, an avid gardener, and an irrepressible dancer who liked to spin his partners off their feet.
Russell Peck died peacefully at home surrounded by his family. Contemplating his own mortality, Russell once said he wished to “die in the harness.” Like the horse in his favorite poet Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he is no doubt “giv[ing] his harness bells a shake” in order to keep on going, with more “promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep.”
Russell Peck’s memorial service will be held at the University Interfaith Chapel on April 29 at 11:00 am. Reception to follow. Donations can be made to The University of Rochester Rossell Hope Robbins Library; in the memo, please indicate: Russell A. Peck Memorial Fund. Checks should be mailed to: University of Rochester; Office of Gift and Donor Records; Bloch Alumni and Advancement Center; 300 East River Road; Box 270032; Rochester, NY.
Mr. Peck is my second cousin but I was too young to remember meeting him in Riverton. A very accomplished man and mentor is a legacy we should all aspire to.
I’m certain he will be missed. Condolences to his family.
Thank you Shannon. I’m glad to know you are a relation!
Prof. Peck, whom I met just once when he presented a predictably insightful and fascinating lecture here in Lexington, was, for much of my academic career, an inspiration to me because of his extraordinary achievement in his work on John Gower. No one, without some careful study of Gower, can really get a grip on 14th century connections among literature, politics, and intellectual life. Prof Peck helped to make the need obvious, and made the project possible. Condolences to his family, esp. to his daughter Demaree, my neighbor, and to all who have known, lived with and loved him.
It was at Asbury First United Methodist Church I Met Ruth and two of her sons who informed me that Doctor Russell Peck was in hospice care and would shortly be coming home to finish out his Life. Even in their moments of anticipatory grief I experienced the vibrancy of Dr. Russell Peck’s family. Reading the obituary I felt a sense of having been cheated not to have known him. But what I am rejoicing about Is the kind of redemptive footprint that he has left behind. He is evidently one of those rare personalities that looms larger than life, almost legendary, yet has impacted the world 1 person at a time, totaling myriads. What a gift to the world. To Ruth and family I vicariously celebrate your beloved’s life, and death and life Everlasting! God bless you as you live the years to come surrounded by the aura of Russell’s brilliance, the energy of his passion for life and most importantly surrounded by his love which will never die. All of this by God’s grace!
I am so sad to learn of Russell’s passing. I have so many more memories than I could possibly recount, from the classroom, of course, but many others as well: chasing the neighbor’s bill from the pasture at the farm, trading garden lore in the backyard in Rochester, running into him and his students occasionally at Stratford or the lobby of the National Theatre in London when I was there with my own much smaller group of students–his irrepressible joy in the theatre and in all that he taught and undertook. Peace eternal rest upon him.
Russell taught me one graduate seminar in Middle English literature which so impressed me that to this day, after years of work as an academic librarian, I have come to regret not following the path to which he introduced me. If it’s any consolation, as I’ve come to delight in the literature of the Middle Ages more and more as I’ve matured, I will have Russell to recall and thank for making my interest in the field something that has grown over the past 50 years, especially so when I teach the era of the manuscript in my history of the book class.