He’s a mechanical engineer, an authority on vintage aircraft, a professor, an author and a family man. Yet, when Chester “Chet” Peek talks about the most exciting time in his 101-year life, he …
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He’s a mechanical engineer, an authority on vintage aircraft, a professor, an author and a family man.
Yet, when Chester “Chet” Peek talks about the most exciting time in his 101-year life, he is quick to mention serving in the U.S. Air Force in England during World War II.
“No question, the most exciting period was the time I spent in England during the war,” Chet said while sitting in his apartment at Elk Run Assisted Living. “Things were kind of serious then. I was pretty fortunate with everything.”
Family members call him a man of calm determination, very bright and very kind. He is part of what has been called the Greatest Generation, those who lived through both the Great Depression and World War II.
“He is of the generation where you take what comes and you make the best of it, but at the same time, he was always determined to make a good life for his family,” said granddaughter Jennie Peek-Dunstone, who lives near Squaw Pass. “He moved up the ranks and problem-solved whether in the war, as an engineer or as a teacher.”
“He gave us a good moral compass,” said his son Stan Peek, who lives in Evergreen. “The biggest thing I learned from him is he tried to do things right, and by that, I mean he is always kind to people. I never heard a cross word to my mother ever, and I don’t think he ever yelled at us. He treated everybody with respect, and he was completely honest.”
Chet has two sons, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Born in Lamars, Iowa, in 1920, Chet learned to read at age 3 and graduated from high school by 16. He stayed home to work on the family farm until he turned 17, then attended Iowa State University, majoring in mechanical engineering. There he met his soon-to-be wife Marian, who was majoring in home economics. Before graduating, he enlisted in the Air Force.
June 1942 was a busy month. He left for basic training the day before he graduated, so Marian accepted his diploma during the graduation ceremony. They wed on June 18, 1942, when he was able to get 24-hour leave, and they were married for 74 years until her death five years ago.
Chet earned his commission as a second lieutenant, eventually attaining the rank of captain, and was sent to England with the 95th Bomb Group. He oversaw mechanics and specialists who maintained the planes, and a pilot himself, he said he flew three or four missions over Germany.
The hardest part about being overseas for three years, he said, was being away from Marian.
He was discharged in October 1945 and worked as a mechanical engineer for Frigidaire and for a livestock trailer company in Oklahoma, settling with Marian and his two sons, Stan and Tom, in Norman, Oklahoma.
He eventually earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering and was a professor at the University of Oklahoma for 20 years, retiring in 1990.
A penchant for planes
Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, after he retired from the University of Oklahoma, he began writing books about the history of primarily World War II airplanes including “Resurrection of a Jenny,” “The First Cub” and “Flying with 40 Horses: A History of the Continental A-40 Aircraft Engine and the Planes It Flew.”
“I never thought of (writing books), but I enjoyed doing it,” he said, noting that he had written articles for various magazines over the years but never anything as long and detailed as books.
An ancillary benefit of the book research, he said, was traveling to the factories where the planes had been manufactured.
He spent decades restoring antique planes, and his family talks about a hangar and workshop he had at a private airstrip in Norman, noting that he restored 33 planes over the years.
Stan remembers flying with his dad on some of those aircraft as a young boy.
Stan said Chet promised Marian he would stop flying when he turned 90, though he would still take out a plane, take it down the runway, fly about 20 feet in the air and then land. Stan said his dad didn’t think that counted as flying an airplane.
Granddaughter Jennie remembers playing in the field while Grandpa Chet was restoring a plane, and he would take the grandkids for a ride.
One of Chet’s prized restorations was of a 1917 Curtiss JN “Jenny” biplane, and Jennie thought the plane was named after her. In 1989, at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s famous air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Chet took an antique aircraft award for the biplane.
Chet moved out of the Norman, Oklahoma, home after Marian died, saying he couldn’t be to live there without her. He moved to Greeley to be closer to the family and eventually to Evergreen.
“Like most veterans, he didn’t start talking about the war until he was in his 80s,” Stan said. “That’s probably because we started asking.”
Jennie said Chet has always been willing to try something new, impressed that he learned to operate an iPhone, send text messages, use a Kindle and more.
She also noted that it’s been fun to hear about his life, “to talk with him about all the things he’s seen in his life.”
Son Stan added: “I think I could say for both my brother and I that these are the bonus years,” as Chet is headed for his 102nd birthday. “It’s such a delight to be around him.”
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