It could not be said that Peggy Stap has lived a life which led in a clear straight line towards cetacean conservation. But that is perfectly on keeping with the sort of woman she is. Her life tends to go in 100 directions all at once on a daily basis, as does her conversation. Peggy is a wonderful, enthusing public speaker with a tendency to go off track down winding tangents full of great stories, with the minor side effect of leaving the listener’s head spinning slightly. I have heard snippets of Peggy’s history in restaurants, in the car and the kitchen, at any time of day and night, and in many different orders. So to get a clear picture of the first 40 years of her life I had to sit her down at breakfast this morning and go through things one simple step at a time. (Even then I had to give her the odd nudge to stay on track.)
What emerges is an unusual and inspiring story. Many people can spend their whole lives in jobs and relationships they dislike, often out of fear or lack of self-confidence. Peggy is lucky; her character is such that she has always been prepared to experiment and go in different directions to seek a fulfilling path in life, whatever weird and wonderful places that may take her to. Peggy’s unusual journey is one little slice of a big proof-pudding that we are all capable of so much more than we sometimes let ourselves believe.
Peggy grew up in Michigan. At school her forte was science and maths, “definitely not English” she says. (This point can be proved beyond any reasonable doubt with the example of when she tried to describe the word ‘impaled’ to her husband Dick. Not being able to remember that word, she chose to use another word to describe it. Unfortunately she chose the word ‘macabre’, more unfortunately she did not know how to pronounce it. So she acted out stabbing herself, while calling out “macabee, macabee!” in the vague hope Dick would understand. Luckily he knew his wife so well he actually interpreted what she meant but spent the next hour in stitches of laughter because of it.)
Her love for dolphins began in childhood, but only in the vague way that many children fall in love with dolphins. She watched Flipper and saw a dolphin in a tank in Florida. At that age any notion of the cruelty at keeping such an animal captive was understandably not present. What Peggy remembers was the inspiring nature of the encounter. She remembers a more dramatic meeting, also in Florida, with a wild dolphin who swam into the dock where she was sitting, stuck its head out of the water and said “eeeeee, eeeee, eeeeeee” at her. Maybe this is where she first picked up the language. These childhood moments gave her a wish to get closer to dolphins at some point in her life, maybe to swim with them someday…, but they did not make her want to work with them. They planted a seed, but it was many years before the seed germinated and grew.
At 16 years old, while still in high school and at the suggestion of her chemistry teacher, Peggy studied chemistry and micro-biology for the summer at the University of Kansas. She also worked in the kitchen there as money was tight; she has always been a hard worker and maybe it sprang from this age. She graduated aged 17 and went to Western Michigan University to study medical technology. While studying for three years Peggy also worked in the hospital as a bacteriologist assistant. She had to prepare and clear Petri dishes, deal with smears and tests, and take blood from patients. She remembers that they all practised the art of taking blood on each other in the lab before having a go on the actual patient; not your usual on-the-job training.
Peggy decided not to go on and become a medical technologist. Having spent a great deal of time while working at the hospital in a small lab room with no windows, she realised the reality of what this life would entail and decided it was not for her. But in order to tell you how she side leaped from medical technology to gardening I’ll have to bring Peggy’s husband Dick into the picture.
Dick and Peggy had an all around the houses kind of beginning to what became a life long happy marriage. They originally knew each other when Peggy was at high school. Dick was in the basketball league and Peggy with her friend Lisa, also Dick’s ex-girlfriend, would record the score for them. At that time Peggy was with her first boyfriend but she and Dick became friends. Peggy and her boyfriend split after two years and Peggy remembers going to a dance hoping that Dick would ask her to dance with him. He never did, but shortly after he did ask her out on a date. Peggy was newly single, young and had never dated before, so she dated Dick but she also dated two other guys on the same day. She was pretty tired after a day of tennis, picnic by a lake and bowling with three different young men. For the next three years while Peggy was at college, she and Dick fell in and out of dating, being friends and dating other people. Peggy’s feelings at the time were that she liked Dick but “you know, I’m not sure” and she was enjoying the fun of being asked out by different guys.
At last at age 20, Peggy and Dick got together properly. There was a sticky moment when Peggy’s dad was moving away and she was possibly going to move with him, but by now she and Dick realised they were inseparable so she stayed and moved in with Dick instead.
Three years later in 1978 they got married, although not without a last minute need of reflection for Peggy. A year before the big day Peggy remembers getting cold feet and a little scared. In response to her fears Dick wrote on the wall while they were painting their house “Do you love me?” She wrote back “Yes”, but in reality her fear made her uncertain. She was still very young and had not had much time being single to find her independence and sense of self. Wisely, she went to stay with her grandparents as she knew they would give her the space to be with her own feelings and not try to influence her. This moment of space was all she needed to discover for herself that she did indeed love Dick and wanted to marry him.
So now we can return to Peggy’s decision to leave the medical world. Dick owned a landscaping business and Peggy started working for him. Over time she learnt how to design and plant flowerbeds, (can you tell by now she is a voracious learner?) She set up her own business designing, planting and running a nursery. But she needed a second job to keep her going through the winter. Her brother in law ran an upholstery business so she worked for him. Once again Peggy then set up her own business designing and sewing frames for pictures, pillows, accessories and hair clips. From there her selling skills took off and she worked additionally for two other companies selling clothing and was promoted to National Sales Manager.
But then she got sick with Epstein-Barr and could not maintain this lifestyle. On Dick’s suggestion she returned to plants. Her summer gardening business was still going but now for the winter she grew perennials. Initially she undertook this in their barn, from there she built a 3,000 sq foot greenhouse, and from there, not being content with just the one, she built another two.
Peggy says that she was a happy woman throughout this period of her life. She and Dick had a great marriage and she loved her job. She was perfectly content and not looking for anything new in her life or feeling that anything was missing. She did however still want to swim with a dolphin, so she decided in her late thirties to learn scuba diving because she figured this might give her the chance to get in the water with a wild dolphin.
In the autumn of 1995 Peggy’s dad died. She had always been very close to her father and was distraught, she cried for months after, she says. In January 1996 Peggy and her mum went to Maui. Her mum had been going every year and Peggy had always had a thing for Hawaii, so this year she went just to ‘get away’…
This one trip to Maui at the age of forty, after a life of medical science, landscape gardening, designing and sewing, being a saleswoman and building huge greenhouses, changed the entire course of Peggy’s life from then until this very day.
But more on that momentous encounter and the next 16 years of Peggy’s life next time…