Margaret "Peg" Knoepfle, 86, of Springfield, died Sunday, May, 23, as the result of a single-car auto crash. Deborah Brothers writes: "Today, I lost one of my oldest friends and mentors, Peggy Sower Knoepfle. Peg was extraordinary. From the yellow Auburn house to the senior living apartment where she lived with her husband, John, until his death in 2019, I spent years loving her and learning from her. From our earliest encounter in the 1980s to our last conversation just before Christmas, Peg Knoepfle shaped and changed me for the better. In 2008, I wrote an essay about Peggy, just because I wanted to. This is an excerpt from that much longer piece. The world will feel very different without Peggy Knoepfle in it."
Margaret (soon called Peg or Peggy) was born to Ed and Agnes Sower in Denver, Colorado, on Oct. 30, 1934. She came to her social consciousness practically from birth, it seems.
"It was in the middle of the Dust Bowl," Peggy says. She says her mother put towels under the doorways to keep out the clouds of dirt. "I was just a baby and she was really worried that I would get sick. Many poor people were dying from these awful pneumonias caused from that dust."
From both her parents, Peggy developed an early interest in politics and human rights. "My dad was a Norman Thomas Socialist, so was my mom. I was what you might call a pink diaper baby. They were very progressive people."
The family lived in Denver until after WW II, then they moved to Idaho, near the south fork of the Boise River, and where Peg's father, a civil engineer and dam designer, was in charge of another project. "I always remember him showing us the dams he designed and built and how he would explain that this was power for the people," she says with a decided nod of her head.
Money for federal dam-building projects stopped once Dwight Eisenhower was elected president. Eventually, Ed Sower got a civil engineering job in Peru, and the whole family moved to Lima for two years. Peggy first attended Catholic University to learn Spanish, later enrolling in San Marcos University as a liberal arts major. "Those were two very important years for me," she says. "At first, I was ignorant of the role our country was playing in the politics of Peru, but I learned fast what was happening. There was a dictator ruling Peru at the time, Odria, and there was a real longing for more justice and democracy in the country. All my friends and classmates belonged to revolutionary organizations."
She leans forward on the couch and closes her eyes as she speaks, "One of the last days I was in Peru, a group of young women – not people I'd known very well – actually it was my very last day – they took me on a tour of the School of Letters. They showed me the bullet holes in the walls, where Odria's people had taken over. I guess that was their way of saying, 'Here's a message for you, Peg. Take this back to the United States.' I'll never forget that, those bullet holes."
Back in the U.S., Peggy began writing about the bullet holes, and her essays won a literary prize. As a result, she was invited to be part of a poetry workshop, the place she would meet John Knoepfle, her future husband. "I was a Marxist at that time, and the workshop guy was so conservative. He didn't connect with the class at all. I kept going back to the class just to look for dates," and Peggy laughs. "John was in the class doing the same thing. I was the second woman he called to ask out, and I thought he was Alvin Greenburg calling. I mean I thought the guy who was Alvin Greenburg, who was really handsome, was named John Knoepfle and was calling me, so I said, 'Yes! I'll go out with you,' but it turned out that Alvin was already married and John was John. It wasn't exactly love at first sight."
Within 10 months though, they married. That was Dec. 26, 1956. Peggy lost one baby through miscarriage but their four (now adult) children – John Jr., Christopher, David and Molly – live in Minnesota, Illinois and Alaska. There are four grandchildren too. Part of becoming a mother, she says, included becoming an activist for mental illness. "You need a little mental illness to live in this world," Peg laughs, but she seriously stands alongside those living with depression and bipolar disorder, testifying in court and before legislators for increased awareness and benefits for people diagnosed with mental illness.
Deborah Brothers is professor of English at Lincoln Land Community College.