As the sun crawls above the horizon, Harold “Pops” Peterson stands on the deck of a ferry counting cars. He directs them to their numbered lanes on the boat with a smile and a friendly wave. It’s a 35-minute trip across the Cape Fear River on the Southport-Fort Fisher Ferry, and Peterson will make the trip a dozen times today during his 12-hour shift. It is the sixth day of a seven-day workweek on the ferry, and Peterson, the 94-year-old dynamo, hasn’t slowed down. Not at this job, not at any job, not at life.
He works seven days on, seven days off, a grueling schedule even for men 50 years his junior. His job duties vary. Some days he’s a deckhand chocking car tires and directing the flow of traffic on and off the ferry, and other days he works alongside the United States Department of Homeland Security or in the booth collecting fares. No matter what he’s asked to do, he does it with a smile and with unflagging enthusiasm.
You might wonder how Peterson finds the energy to work such a demanding schedule. It all goes back to his philosophy, one he’s lived by for a while.
“Once you stop, the ball game’s over,” he says, spreading his arms as if to say, See, my 94 years are all the proof you need.
“Look here,” Peterson says, holding out his hands. They are strong and broad. A couple of the fingers are bent, and a few knuckles are swollen. They are a workingman’s hands. “Not a fingerprint to be found. I worked them off years ago, and they never came back.”
It’s possible he never had fingerprints. He spent his teenage years as a roofer alongside his father. He worked on a farm to pay tuition and waited tables to cover room and board until his 1938 graduation from Farmingdale State College on Long Island. He owned a successful poultry farm for decades and worked for 25 years as a millwright with Grumman Aircraft. He spent all of his vacation time working, helping his son Harper in his wood shop in Wilmington. In the early 1980s, he moved to North Carolina and worked on Bald Head Island for two decades. When most men would have retired, he moved on to his current job with the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Ferry Division.
“Working on the ferry, that’s an early day, OK, but it’s good work,” he says. “My mornings start at 5. I leave by 6, and I’m at work before my shift starts at 7. I get home around 8 every night.”
How does the Ferry Division’s oldest employee work circles around his younger coworkers? Peterson says it’s in what he eats — a diet that hasn’t changed for years. Breakfast is the same every day: a glass of water; a mix of Total, Cheerios, and Grape-Nuts with two percent milk; half a piece of whole-wheat bread with jelly; half a cup decaffeinated coffee, the rest of which he puts in the microwave and saves for dinner.
Lunch, like breakfast, never varies: one can of Jack Mackerel, some whole-wheat crackers, and a handful of cherry tomatoes.
“Some of the guys on the ferry give me a hard time about my lunch, but I tell them that all of the fried stuff they’re eating, it’s bad for them,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Look at me. I’m 94 and still working.’”
His afternoon snack never wavers, either — a homemade fruit salad he prepares fresh every day. Dinner is the only meal that changes, but every night it’s a three-course meal: salad, a rotisserie chicken, sides, and dessert. Before he goes to bed, he takes the only “medicine” he says he’s ever taken — two tablespoons of cod liver oil.
“I don’t eat all sorts of garbage,” he says. “I avoid a lot of sugar, except my dessert, and I’ve weighed the same for 40 years. I have pants from 1970 hanging in my closet that still fit. I’ve never drank. No beer, no wine, no booze, nothing. Never smoked, either. I never put any of that junk in my body.”
If ever there was a poster child for clean living, Peterson is it.
Beyond the horizon
When he was 16, he ran away from home. It was 1933 — the height of the Great Depression — and he had a good job as a roofer, working for his father in Queens, New York. The hours and work didn’t bother him — his father had instilled in him the merits of hard work — but the city life became too much. The streets felt small. His home felt small. He needed the space to learn his passions and figure out his life.
“I decided I’d had enough,” he says. “I wasn’t spending another summer in the city. I wasn’t living with my father for one more night. I wasn’t working for him one more day. I was getting out. At the time, I didn’t realize just how alike we were.”
One day, he simply put down his hammer, packed a bag, and rode off on his bicycle, inadvertently following in his father’s footsteps. Peterson’s father left his home and family in Norway at 16 and joined the crew of a sailing ship. For years, he lived at sea before he immigrated to America. He passed down this self-discovering wanderlust to Peterson, and, in time, Peterson passed it down to his children.
When his son Harper was a high school senior, Harper and a friend wanted to go to Florida over Christmas break. Peterson arranged a ride for them in the back of a potato truck bound for Maryland. “After that, we were on our own, and we hitchhiked to Florida and back,” Harper says. “That’s just one of the adventures. He encouraged me to get out and live in the world. I hitchhiked to Alaska and Los Angeles.”
Harper was just a boy when his dad bought a sailboat. Nobody in the family knew how to sail, but Peterson bought the boat anyway. As Harper recalls, his dad’s 36-foot racing sloop “was a monster of a boat, and we had no idea about what we were getting into.” All winter and spring, Peterson worked on it and read up on sailing. Then, in early summer, it was time for the maiden voyage.
“This is how Pops is, living life every minute of every day,” Harper says. “We took that boat out and taught ourselves to sail. There was a lot of screaming and yelling, but we learned, and we loved it, Pops especially. After that, we spent all of our spare time on the boat.”
After he graduated from college, Harper sailed the boat down the east coast.
“I never held my kids back, you see,” Peterson says. “I tried to encourage them to explore and discover and know themselves. I believe you have to go out and get your life in order to have a fulfilling one. The only way to do that is to get out and go. I told my kids that there’s time for work later; find yourself, find life, then go join the rat race.” It seems that his six children took that advice to heart.
His son Chuck was a successful artist who illustrated book covers and advertisements on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. Valerie married an Air Force lieutenant colonel and retired to Annapolis, Maryland. Pat works as a copy editor in New York’s publishing industry. Rodney is a retired FedEx pilot. Mike turned his passion for sailing into a career and owns Sail Caribbean, a teen leadership organization focused on sailing, SCUBA and community service, in Tortola. Harper was mayor of Wilmington and still has businesses on Bald Head Island renting bikes, kayaks, canoes, golf carts, and giving sailing lessons.
Their careers and lives have all taken different turns, but Peterson’s children followed their passions and share the same zeal for life and work as their father.
Peterson never imagined he’d live in North Carolina. Growing up in New York, in fact, he almost didn’t realize there was any place between the city and Florida.
His first visit to the state was in the early 1960s when Harper came to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recruited to play lacrosse. Peterson and his wife, Ruth, drove down from Long Island for every game.
After graduation, Harper settled in Wilmington, and his dad would visit, using his three weeks of vacation to help in Harper’s woodworking shop. In 1983, Harper moved to Bald Head Island to open Riverside Adventure Company, and his dad was close behind; Peterson retired from Grumman Aircraft and moved to Southport.
“Ruth told me ‘Go down there and help your son,’” Peterson says.
Southport was a quaint fishing village then, and Bald Head Island seemed detached from the rest of the world. The city boy fell in love with the way of life here. “The nights were still and dark, and I could see more stars than I’d ever seen,” Peterson says. “It was lonely and beautiful.”
On Bald Head Island, Peterson helped run Riverside Adventure Company. In the backyard he had a picnic table and umbrella where he would hold court every morning, drawing every kid and curious visitor in to hear his stories and jokes.
“Everyone on Bald Head knew him as Pops,” Harper says. “He was and is that kind of magnetic father figure. How could you not know about him? He was waiting for you when you got off the ferry. He was the man to see about anything that moved on the island. He had the jokes and stories you wanted to hear. People talked about him and felt they needed to meet him. I remember once, Willard Scott had been on the island and I saw him on TV a few days later. He mentioned Bald Head Island and signed off with ‘I wonder what Pops is doing today.’”
A changing life
Peterson’s home is filled with reminders of his past and present. He covered the walls with photos and paintings of the people, places, and things he loves. The New York Yankees in their mid-century heyday. New York City skylines. Sailboats, docks, seascapes, and impressionist landscapes. Photos of Ruth, who passed away a few years ago, and Ruby, the 17-year-old black lab he lost recently. His children and grandchildren are in every corner.
He keeps his most prized photo in his bedroom. In it, he and Harper sit at the helm of the Gull, a 36-foot ketch. Both men are young, fit, and handsome. Harper, with his trademark mustache and rakish smile, sits shirtless to his dad’s right. Peterson, head tilted, equally rakish smile dancing on his lips, looks into the camera, content.
Here in Wilmington, Peterson has found a way to wear that smile permanently. He’s worked to build his quiet life and comfortable house. He’s near the water. He balances work and leisure and enjoys himself.
“I’ve got a full life,” he says. “I’ve got my friends at work. I have a lady-friend, who I take out to dinner occasionally, and my son lives nearby.”
Although he’s slowed down a little — he is 94, after all — it’s not all work for Peterson. One day a few months ago, he was in downtown Wilmington at Harper’s house test-driving an electric bicycle. Harper bought it for him.
On his first ride, Peterson hopped on the bike and shot off down the street and out of sight. In a few minutes, he came back, his silver hair flying and smile beaming. Just as quickly, he was off for another lap.
“Those electric bicycles are funny things,” Peterson says. “I thought you wanted to exercise when you’re on a bike, but you don’t even have to pedal them. I guess some things do change.”
Some things never change (like breakfast) and some things do (like bicycles), but Peterson’s enthusiasm for the world has always been there, driving everything he does, shaping his life and the lives of his children.
“Pops never ceases to amaze me,” Harper says. “He loves life. He loves people. He loves a good laugh. He can cry. He really knows himself. I’d say he’s the most complete person I know.”
Jason Frye is a freelance writer who lives in Wilmington. His articles regularly appear in Bald Head Island’s Haven, Wrightsville Beach Magazine, and North Brunswick Magazine.