Christopher Peters stood before the people packed into St. Augustine Church Thursday and did what everyone has done this week.
He told a story about Mayor Mike.
Christopher recalled it being around midnight one night when his dad, Hartford Mayor Michael Peters, got a call from a woman who said her cat was stuck in a tree. The woman asked Peters — a former firefighter — if he could help. We don't really do that, Peters told her. But he calmed the woman. Go to bed, he told her, the cat will come down on its own.
Then, in his way, he emphasized the positive.
"By the way," he asked her, "you ever see the skeleton of a cat in a tree before?"
It was just one of the stories about Michael Paul Peters that got an otherwise solemn group to smile Thursday, as the city gathered to mourn its Mayor Mike. Peters died Sunday after a battle with liver disease. He was 60.
Politicians, police officers, firefighters, community activists, state officials, governors, mayors, friends and family filled the church in Barry Square — not far from where Peters' grandfather had his tailor shop, where Peters' parents raised a family, and where Peters himself worked as a firefighter. The Mass was to start at 10 a.m., but the pews started to fill an hour before. Belly laughs and muffled cries mixed in the church for nearly two hours.
Those in attendance spoke of their love for Peters and his love for his city, his family, and his high school sweetheart and wife, Jeannette.
The Rev. Gary Miller of the Asylum Hill Congregational Church asked forgiveness before he told those gathered what they already seemed to know: "The passing of Michael Peters hurts like hell."
But then he lightened the mood with a story about an early run-in with Peters. It was years ago at the city's annual, early-morning prayer breakfast. Guests were to be there by 6:30 a.m. Miller began the breakfast with a formal prayer of invocation. Peters then rose with greetings from the city.
"Hey, what's this all about?" Peters said. "I got up, it was dark. I got here, it's still dark. … How about next year you make it a prayer luncheon?"
Miller called Peters a man bullish on hope and on the empowerment of the hopeful. He also called him a man full of love.
"He loved life, and he loved Hartford," Miller said. "He loved his wife, and he loved Hartford. He loved his kids, and he loved Hartford. He loved his wider family, and he loved Hartford."
Geraldine Sullivan, Peters' sister, spoke of her youth in a home where family, respect and compassion were paramount. She spoke of a teenage brother who was enlisted by his parents to go to proms and dances with girls who otherwise wouldn't have a date; of a young newspaper delivery boy who franchised his route to improve his delivery rate and still make a profit; of a kindergarten student who was harassed by first-graders on the walks to and from school.
To help him avoid being bullied, Peters' father spent an evening teaching his son to box. The next day, Peters told his father he hadn't been bullied that day.
"My father proudly asked, 'Well, what happened?'" Sullivan recalled. Her brother, equally proud, said, "I took a different way home from school."
Sullivan also described Peters, the husband, as a man who adored his wife. In the last few weeks of his life, when he couldn't speak, he would search the hospital room with his eyes for Jeannette.
"He only found peace and comfort when he found her," Sullivan said.
Next was Christopher, Peters' son, who said he decided not to "shoot from the hip" like his father and instead took prepared remarks out of his coat pocket.
He spoke of a father who delivered heating oil when he wasn't fighting fires and who sometimes took him along for a ride — and the time the young Peters got covered in oil when a tank overflowed. He spoke of a father who was a little league umpire, and a father who shared Yankees games on TV on warm summer nights.
And he spoke of a man well loved who died surrounded by family.
"I am deeply sorry for all of you," Christopher Peters said. "I feel like we're all in the same boat. … The pain in my heart is no greater than yours. I know this because he meant so much to so many."
He closed as his father would have: "Go Hartford."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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