From Dan LaRue, June 2021
I have lots of letters from Jim Ludwig, from the time he contacted me in 1988 till his death in 1997; he was a prolific writer. He first wrote when he saw a planter I left at Pete’s grave in 1988. I don’t recall doing so, but I must have left my name/address with it; I usually don’t. I was there for a project for Graduate School and drove there with a lady friend who was just glad for a day away from campus to do research at the George Eastman House, and swung around to the cemetery later. Then we ate at a Mexican restaurant near a plaza on Penfield Road lower than your house before driving back to Clarion, PA.
Many of the letters had nothing to do with Pete. I’ll copy some of the ones that do. We had common interests and I told him that I wanted to get to know him for himself, not just because he was Pete’s friend, so after the first few letters, I didn’t ask him about Pete, though sometimes he brought him up. Once, a winter visit to Penfield, he drove me around to the old haunts where Pete and he and others camped along the lake shore or along a road leading from Panorama Plaza to Browncroft Blvd., where he lived (don’t recall its name), and took me to sites associated with the French & Indian Wars and the French General Denonville and the Seneca village near Victor. Anyway, I’ll copy two letters here and more later if interested; if not interested, I’ll stop with these.
The first one had the letterhead from KCFW-TV in Kalispell, MT. I nearly threw it out, since I didn’t know anyone from Montana. It was dated December 16, 1988.
Last August, I returned to Penfield for a 30th high school reunion. As I always visit my father’s grave (near Peter’s), I saw your note while “meditating” at Pete’s grave. In fact, I mentioned your note at our reunion that evening since all of us (we only had 42 in our ’58 graduating class) loved Pete although he graduated in ’57. He had so much talent and we all knew he’d make it! Such a tragedy he died so young. He could play serious drama as well as comedy. I knew he was frustrated with his last comedy western TV series (Alias Smith & Jones) and didn’t want to be typecast in that kind of role. If Peter had only lived longer, his true potential could have been fully realized. Anyway, the geraniums were taken in before the frost—thanks for leaving them for Peter—he loved nature. P.S. I’m curious!! Why did you happen to visit Peter’s grave? I finally visited the grave of James Dean in Indiana last June.
Jim lived in Kalispell, because at some point he moved to Montana. He was interested in Native Americans and joined VISTA, was in Tennessee a while, then with natives in Alaska, and last with the Blackfeet Indians in MT, who adopted him into the tribe, calling him “young Eagle” in gratitude for his efforts at getting a pencil factory brought to their capital in Browning, MT. He also taught at the Flathead (Salish) community college in Kalispell and worked for the TV station, including some reporting from Moscow. He and I loved trains. I traveled to see him in 1992 by train and then he traveled home by train for the experience, but said it took too long and resumed flying home to Rochester. We spoke of a joint trip by train across Russia on the Siberian Express before he died suddenly in January 1997 from the same heart condition that killed his dad.
The second letter was from the following February 5.
Thanks for a very interesting letter re: your life and interaction with Peter. I am glad you were able to establish contact with Pamela; I have fond memories of her and Geoffrey, too, and regret that Peter’s death caused Geoffrey to terminate his acting career. Like Peter, he had tremendous talent. My mother talked with love of Peter’s friends who cared for the geraniums. While doing a family photo history at the Penfield cemetery, I took the enclosed photo for you of his gravestone last December. Also enclosed is a xerox of a photo taken 23 years ago this April when I had Peter talk to a television class I was involved with at Rochester’s East High School.
Now some “memories” of a wonderful person and friend—Pete Deuel. Yes, a person you could completely trust. Peter was a year ahead of me at Penfield High School and he graduated in 1957! In school, he was a “cut up” and had an undue influence, and this caused a commotion and disruption in some classes and one substitute teacher (in French) vowed never to return to Penfield because of things Pete and I did interrupting her class—all in “good fun” of course! I recall a dynamic and brilliant radio address Peter gave at an assembly when the “junior town meeting” of the Air came to Penfield High. Another time, in gym class, I remember Peter jumping so high to catch a baseball with such physical grace and beauty. He had such “charisma” that everyone knew he would become famous as an actor.
He drank hard at times and I didn’t really attend any of those parties, although I was invited. When 17 or 18 or 19, Peter was involved in a serious auto accident that was alcohol-related, and he went out through a car front window; fortunately, plastic surgery corrected any damage. In other words, Pete had qualities of both goodness and aspects of being a “devil,” too. I don’t believe Pete had it in him to ever be mean to anyone or seriously hurt anyone. When he became famous, Pete had an ego, but way NOT egocentric and self-centered, in my opinion.
We were in high school plays together and I have fond memories of the rehearsals and attempts to get our lines memorized. Just thinking back, Peter was so warm, understanding, genuinely concerned if you had a problem, and a true friend. At his senior class assembly for our Junior class, he conferred his title of “class clown” to me! (I remember “campaign” speeches we gave together at an assembly during student elections.)
We were both in Boy Scouts. I remember seeing him—with surprise—at the Scout Camp Massawepie located in New York’s beautiful Adirondack Mountains a few days after his graduation from high school with a troop as assistant scoutmaster. I was there on the camp staff and we had a good visit. Pete was always willing to help others. Peter supported natural candidates and spoke out on environmental concerns. As fame took hold with Peter, he talked to my high school class in 1964 and 1966. My sister came to the class in 1966 and Peter took her home to our mother’s house in Penfield after his presentations. To this day, she still remembers his charm and genuine warmth when he came back and talked with her for some time over coffee at the house.
I recall a party we attended in ’65 or ’66, and I did a Ralph Edwards This is Your Life type radio interview with Peter that he really enjoyed and kept laughing about. Just thinking about all of this makes me sad that Peter isn’t still with us where, by now, he would have been quite famous and, I sincerely believe, really respected as an actor of serious stature beyond his previous comedy roles. He had such potential and God only knows why he ended it all—whether by an “accident” or self-inflicted. Why? Why?
Pete and I sat and sang together at a special high school Christmas evening presentation when former students returned and met on stage for the “Messiah.” I had resigned a college teaching position to join VISTA on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. I was wearing a PT boat tie clasp Bob Kennedy gave me and I remember Peter admiring it. This was December ’67 or ’68. He told me that he was proud of me for becoming a VISTA volunteer.
Then it was tragically over. I had returned from Alaska in the fall of 1971 to work on a Ph.D. at Syracuse University. My mother’s sudden scream alerted me to Peter’s shocking death when she heard it on the TODAY program. We all felt such sadness, like a family member had died. An ice storm prevented me from attending Pete’s funeral in January 1972. That spring, I had a long talk with Mrs. Deuel at the family house. She told me Peter had kept all my letters written and photos taken at the various events we attended, especially the high school visits I arranged. I miss him!
Your letter caused me to bring back many great memories of Pete and a few tears, too, because he’s no longer here. He was a friend of my father’s and is buried very near him and I feel they’re together in the afterlife.
Good bye for now, Dan, and KEEP IN TOUCH.
A friend, Jim Ludwig
I’ll just say in closing that his words about tears were true. I visited Penfield over New Year 1990 with him and he did cry when we visited Peter’s grave. Most of the other letters talk of other things. If you want, I’ll look over some of them and transcribe those that speak of your brother, Peter.