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From chasing subs to teaching kids, Cold War vet found success

As a youngster, Ronald Peoples stocked shelves at his family's East Side grocery store at Peckham and Monroe streets, but he also found time for sports.

Raised across the street from Willert Park playground, he often joined in games of football on a gravel coated field – talk about a gridiron – and played basketball on the courts.

He learned the games from "the older guys," athletes from Hutchinson Central High School who sometimes practiced on their own after school at the playground.

"They'd run plays and we little guys would watch and absorb it," Peoples recalled.

So naturally when he started at Fosdick-Masten Park High School, he was ready to play.

"Playing on the teams gave me an excuse not to work at the grocery store," Peoples said with a chuckle. "I got a reprieve. My father was a hall-of-fame catcher for the Municipal League and he encouraged sports."

After he graduated, the coaches at the University at Buffalo dangled a carrot: Come play for our teams, and if you perform well, you "might" be awarded a scholarship, Peoples said.

"I played freshmen basketball, and in my sophomore year I made the football team, but when basketball season started, I said, 'That's it for me with football. I don't have to take a beating,' and I went out for basketball and didn't make the cut," he said, the memory drawing another chuckle.

Losing out on the chance for a scholarship, it turned out, was no big loss. Uncle Sam cut short his college career on Dec. 5, 1955, with a draft notice. Peoples was soon on his way to basic training at Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Maryland.


Ronald Peoples, 84

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Navy

Rank: seaman

War zone:  Cold War

Years of service:  December 1955 – September 1957

Specialty: ship storekeeper


The Korean War had ended two years earlier and he thought he might serve during relative global calm. That was not to be. The Cold War, pitting the Soviet Union against the United States and its allies, was heating up.

"Everybody was concerned. School kids would practice drills and go under their desks," he said. "We could have had a nuclear holocaust."

Peoples was assigned to the USS Weatherford, an antisubmarine ship, which he said was better described as "a tin can."

It was while the Weatherford was patrolling in international waters off the coast of Miami that the hostilities of the Cold War became very real for Peoples.

"We made contact with an unknown submarine. If it had been one of our subs, they would have identified themselves.  We chased it until it submerged," People said of the suspected Soviet submarine.

He recalled how the acting captain on the Weatherford behaved in a somewhat trigger-happy manner.

"He gave an order to prepare depth charges and launch hedgehogs. But someone else in the command heard the order over the radio and said to the acting captain, 'You are relieved of your command. Bring the ship into port.' Hedgehogs, can you believe it?"

Peoples again fell into laughter when he reflected on "hedgehogs" – up to 30 small mortars fired in rapid succession to increase odds of a hit  – hurtling through the air toward the submerging submarine. And yet, he did not entirely fault the acting skipper for what could have started World War III.

"He was just doing what they'd prepared him for," said Peoples, who nevertheless was glad cooler heads had prevailed.

There was plenty of tension on those patrols, but Peoples said he and fellow sailors also had their share of good times on leave down in Cuba. That was before Fidel Castro had overthrown the U.S.-supported Batista regime.

"Us sailors would charter a small plane out of Key West and go to Havana for the weekend. This was when Castro was still up in the mountains," Peoples said. "Havana was beautiful."

Besides the picturesque pastels and sultry feel of a tropical city, other attractions made Havana popular.

For instance, there was the Bacardi rum factory.

Navy veteran Ronald Peoples holds a photo of himself in his younger days, when he chased Soviet submarines while on the USS Weatherford. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

"They wouldn't charge us for the rum at the factory, but they charged twenty cents for a bottle of Coca-Cola to mix with the rum" the 84-year-old veteran said. "Back in the states, a gallon of gasoline was seventeen cents at the time and in Cuba Coca-Cola cost more."

There were also the hotel casinos.

"But most of the sailors were denied access. They knew something was going to happen. Sailors were already drunk when they showed up at the casinos," Peoples said, again amused by a military memory.

Eager to return to civilian life, he was released by the Navy just in time to start the 1957 fall semester at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. By this time, he was married to the former Arlene Miles and raising two daughters, Rachel and Monica.

St. Cloud, he said, seemed like a good move. Coaches there promised him a full scholarship if he proved himself on the track team. But, once again, the athletic scholarship failed to materialize. It did not matter. Peoples found a way.

He lived with his family in veterans housing, and a friend whose father owned a local newspaper made arrangements for Peoples to work part time loading papers onto delivery trucks. After earning a bachelor's degree in elementary and special education, he moved his family back to Buffalo and started teaching at School 82 on Easton Avenue.

"I was the first black teacher at the school," he said. "I worked there a year and could walk home for lunch. It was so close to my apartment in the Kenfield-Langfield projects."

Peoples' next assignment took him to the elementary school he had attended growing up.

"That was School 47 on Hickory Street and I had to start driving to work."

He also continued to advance academically, earning two master's degrees, one in special education, the other in educational administration.

With those degrees in hand, he moved up in the school district, first serving as the home school coordinator/counselor at Woodlawn Junior High School, then as the district's elementary school supervisor.

Peoples also served as an acting principal at School 31 on Stanton Street and after 35 years, he retired as the district director of adult education in 1995.

But he never really retired.

He has worked part time for decades with the Community Action Organization of Erie County, where he still is employed.

"I work with individuals who may have problems with the legal systems. I go to different courts and the jails and I do counseling. The judges and the lawyers all know me."

He attributes his lifetime of success to several factors, beginning with growing up on Buffalo's East Side, which "prepared me for anything and everything;" the discipline the military taught him; and the positive example set by his parents, Lula and King Peoples.

They not only operated a grocery store, but his father worked at Westinghouse and served as a union official.

All of that, Peoples said, helped him become a positive role model for his two daughters and son.

"My daughter Monica has a doctorate degree. My son Ronald has a master's in business administration and my other daughter Rachel, who passed away, had a bachelor's degree in recreational therapy," said Peoples, a proud father and Navy veteran.

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