Three years ago Cinnamon Hoeschler and her mother stopped by Rancho Park in Cheviot Hills to watch Francis Peeler teach archery. Today 14-year-old Cinnamon is a champ with the bow and arrow.
Four months ago Christopher Hall, 8, was on a Sunday run with his mother and, out of curiosity, they detoured to the Rancho Park archery range. Today, Christopher has a friend and a role model named Francis Peeler.
Nine weeks ago Bridgette Kelley, 36-year-old project coordinator for a record company, spread an old blanket on the lawn at Rancho Park and settled down to read a Danielle Steel novel called "Remembrance." At a slow spot in the book she glanced up, noticed the archery range, wandered over and started a habit: five days a week of shooting arrows under the direction of Francis Peeler.
Francis Peeler: musician, bicyclist, leather worker, hunter, animal lover, philosopher, friend, archer and archery teacher par excellence who gives free lessons with bows and arrows provided by a nonprofit foundation.
He is 79 years old, quick-witted, funny when he wants to be; he has a way with kids that would make any parent jealous and is so dedicated to teaching archery that he volunteers at Rancho Park from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., 362 days a year including Christmas, New Year's and Thanksgiving days. He'd work every day, but city regulations force him to lock up on Labor Day, Memorial Day and July 4.
"I have no chicks, no kids, no cat and no canary, no dogs, no fish and no reason to go home," Peeler said with a laugh. He's a man who shoots arrows so straight he hits bull's-eyes while blindfolded--but he loves to talk obliquely.
Not that Peeler won't talk straight when the need arises. For example, a bunch of rowdy 5th-graders tossing rocks at his tamed squirrels just beyond the archery range fence at once revealed the old man's direct approach and his way with children.
If anything were to trigger Peeler's temper, it would be kids pegging rocks at his squirrels, creatures he addresses fondly by name as they climb out of pine and fig trees to skitter into his lap for peanuts. But nothing seems to make Peeler angry.
"You are welcome to be here," Peeler told the 5th-graders more firmly than genially. Immediately the stern tone juxtaposed with the hospitable message stilled the jabbering, which died to a few whispers. "You are welcome to watch us shoot," Peeler continued, as the 10 or 12 youngsters warily gave him full attention. "You are welcome to come onto the archery range. You are even welcome to come back on Saturday and I'll teach you to shoot." Appreciation and respect crossed the young faces. "But you are not welcome to throw stones at the squirrels," the septuagenarian concluded emphatically.
Raised by Aunt
Some of the kids came through the archery range gate to investigate, a couple hung around to talk, none returned Saturday . . . and not another rock got hurled at Tiny, Roughneck, Mama, Pee Wee or any of the other squirrels to whom Peeler doles out peanuts from a 25-pound sack he keeps in a cabinet at the archery range.
Because his parents had seven children, and his aunt Florence Work had none, Francis Monroe Peeler was raised by his Aunt Flo in Tuskegee, Ala., across Franklin Road from Tuskegee Institute, academic home of two black American heroes: George Washington Carver, who lectured and studied there, and Booker T. Washington, the institute's first head.
"When I was 5 or 6 I used to ride on the back of Booker T. Washington's horse," Peeler recalled. "His daughter-in-law was my third-grade teacher.
"In the sixth grade I carried George Washington Carver's lunches to him. He'd stand at his window and talk to God just like I talk to you."
Peeler stood up. He became George Washington Carver as the pioneer scientist stood more than seven decades ago staring out the window of his Tuskegee laboratory, holding a branch from a diseased tree: "Now God, you made this tree, you made this branch," intoned Peeler cum Carver. "Now--if you will--show me a way to cure it."
The branch was from a peach tree, and Carver found a way to cure the disease, Peeler recalled.
When Peeler was 9, his grandmother taught him to make bows and arrows.
"I cut the willows from the forest and treated them with fire to make bows. The arrows came from reeds I cut in the swamp, and the arrowheads were old Indian arrowheads I found near Euphaupee Creek."
Ordinary twine rubbed with beeswax became bow strings.
Peeler shot his first rabbit when he was 11. His eyes still sparkle when he describes the event as one of the big thrills of his life. He loves to hunt, treasures the challenge of stalking a buck until he is just 75 feet away, holds close the pleasure of time spent in the woods.
He has a couple of firm rules: "I never shoot from a blind. That's stealing. And I never kill any animal I can't use."