Whenever Peggy saw me, she smiled, her cheeks touching the bottoms of her gold wire rims, and her peace sign earrings dancing a little as she raised her arms to embrace me. Peg's signature jewelry held more weight than a few ounces tugging at her earlobes, more than some hippie symbol from the 1960s. Peggy hugged her values as closely as she hugged those she loved, and peace and compassion formed Peg's core, helping her create and sustain the long relationships she treasured.
Born in Denver to Ed and Agnes Sower, Peg said that she followed her politically progressive and educated parents down the path of social justice activism. Her father, a civil engineer, built dams in the U.S. and South America, and the family went with him. Peggy spent two years in Peru, becoming fluent in Spanish and politics. Living in a dictatorship opened her eyes to oppressive policies worldwide, and she brought that awareness back to the United States.
From the 1950s until a bout with COVID-19 last December, Peggy could often be found demonstrating — making speeches, marching, standing as a silent witness — against war, injustice, inequality. Peg didn't talk about her awards for peace activism, but she earned several, among them "12 Women Who Changed Springfield," (from WUIS-NPR), "Humanitarian of the Year" (The Greater Springfield Interfaith Association) and "Woman of Excellence" (YWCA).
Peggy loved educating. Beginning in 1989, she produced World in Progress, (formerly Works in Progress) for cable access television. Her featured guests were activists, writers and artists. As a longtime member of Witness for Peace, Peg made five trips to Nicaragua and one to Cuba as a delegate. She chaired the local chapter of Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Peggy managed Heartland Peace Center and was a board associate for a decade. She belonged to peace and faith groups at St. Joseph Catholic Church and the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist congregation. At 74, Peggy campaigned door-to-door in Iowa for Barack Obama's first presidential bid. At 84, she demonstrated in 90-degree-plus heat at the Families Belong Together rally in Springfield.
Peggy married young. She met American poet John Knoepfle during a writing workshop at college in Ohio. She said, "I kept going back just to look for dates. John was doing the same thing. I was the second woman he called to ask out." They married Dec. 26, 1956, and had five children together: James (died in infancy), John, Jr., David, Christopher and Molly. There are four grandchildren: Hannah, Emily, Molly and Austin.
"My parents had a love story until the very end," Molly Knoepfle Evans says, "with decades of kitchen table and morning rituals. They were both very blessed in that marriage, and it lasted 63 years."
John and Peg showed up together regularly at Barnes & Noble, Trout Lily Café, writers' groups, book launches and sometimes they just danced the two-step together in the kitchen for their grandchildren. John died Nov. 16, 2019.
The Knoepfle family moved to Auburn in 1972 when John got hired to teach creative writing at Sangamon State University. Peggy, at 38, had recently finished her bachelor of arts at Washington University. For the next 30 years, their yellow house on 10th Street was the spot. Dogs Joe and Mooch licked food off plates and had their bellies scratched as Peg baked oatmeal cookies and hosted meetings. She became associate editor of Illinois Issues magazine for two decades, but early on, Peg also formed brainchild, a women's writing collective.
Peg told me stories about the group's beginnings. "We did a reading at this bar. . . next to the Leland Hotel. Jackie Jackson stood up. She read a piece about a vaginal itch, and at that moment, the writing of the women of Springfield changed," Peg laughed.
Those of us in brainchild lived for the flash of that smile and Peg's trademark feedback to our writing, her "That's just awesome!" The group met regularly for 35 years, until Peg and Jackie merged those left into a mixed Thursday night group.
Jackie also taught at SSU, becoming close friends with John and Peg right away. She says, "At first, for me, brainchild wasn't even about the writing. I was going through a divorce, had young daughters. I'd go to meetings and fall asleep. Peg understood." Around the time John retired, the Knoepfles moved. Jackie says Sunday night suppers began then.
"I'd bring the main course. Peg made salad and chocolate pudding from scratch. We became family," says Jackie. "Even in small ways, Peg was always looking forward to life."
Part of Peggy's zest for living came from her love of nature. As a child she spent hours climbing trees, hiking and exploring gorges. Peg drew emotional and spiritual solace from the outdoors, encouraging her children to do likewise. Peggy spent five weeks early in 2021 at her daughter's Alaskan home. "She'd been cooped up so much," Molly explains. "Mom was ready to get back into nature. We went to dog sled races and walked. God gave us this beautiful last Alaskan adventure together."
Peggy and another friend were driving to Washington Park last May when a car accident claimed her life. The shock hit family, friends and the community hard.
We know Peggy's spirit and legacy is still present in all she touched, but Peggy was vital, larger than life. Granddaughter Emily Evans shared that Peg was "a beacon of light and empathy who could truly listen to anyone," no matter if her values aligned with theirs. Emily says that Peg, "exuded kindness and raised hell in her own brilliant ways."
"Peg was just a gift to all of us," says longtime friend Jackie.
"And she wore hats so well," laughs Pat Martin, another longtime friend and former brainchild member.
Once, following the death of our mutual friend Rosie Richmond, Peg said to me with tears streaming down her face: "You just can't replace people."
No, Peggy dear. You just can't.
I first met Peg when I was a college student working on a project for Illinois Issues magazine and we were later involved in brainchild together. She ended up being my friend for over 35 years, and I will be forever grateful for the support, love, nurturing, intellectual stimulation and inspiration that Peg and John provided.