The Backstory: Mark Peters

  • Mark Peters at his home in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mark Peters at his home in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mark Peters at his home in Northampton. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mark Peters at his home in Northampton. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/13/2019 10:41:42 PM

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.

Mark Peters, 67, describes himself as “a lone wolf.” The Northampton resident grew up in Greenfield in the 1950s and ’60s, when “there were probably three or four other black families at the time,” he said.

Despite his lone-wolf tendencies, “People gravitate toward me,” he says. One of those people is his second wife, Barbara Peters, who is white, and who was a single mother of six children when they met. (They married in 1994.) On a recent afternoon at their home in Hathaway Farms in Northampton, the couple recalled their early years together.

Dating men before “was not easy because once they found out you had six children, they were like, ‘Oh boy, I don’t want to deal with that,’” Barbara Peters said, sitting at their kitchen table. “I was just about giving up on dating, and then I met Mark. He was just everything that no one else was. He was a hard worker. He was nice to my children. He just was … comfortable. And I just thought, ‘This person is who I want to spend my life with.’”

Here’s his backstory, in his own words.

My wife defines my life. She has my back. We have a very exceptional relationship. It’s exceptional because she rounds out my edges when I get out of sorts because of any racial things going down in my life. She keeps me in sync.

She used to cut my hair, but I saw her before that because Chris, her son, used to sweep this garage that I used to go to. Well, she came down this one time, and I was inquiring. I said, “Who’s that?” And he said, “That’s my mother.” We just became really good friends.

If we got together earlier, I think we would have had about 12 children.

Growing up in Greenfield, there was a lot of, well, I didn’t know that much because my parents brought me up not looking at this racism thing. We never talked about it, but looking at it now, things were happening to me very slowly. People were doing certain things to me. I was taught to brush it off and keep moving on.

I had a few fights growing up … on the playground and stuff. Scuffles. I’d just listened to enough or they’d push the right buttons. I’m talking grammar school. In 1964, there was not getting picked for the all-star team — and I should have. I had the stats, stolen bases and whatever, and I wasn’t picked. That probably had some overtones of racism. But it is what it is. I just kept moving on.

I was a lone wolf. I did the athletic thing, I wasn’t stupid, my grades were OK. By sophomore year, I was vice president of my class.

I loved sports. Like I was telling my grandson, it was an outlet for me — for all the pressures and everything growing up. I used to run a lot. I used to ride my 10-speed. I used to run down to Deerfield Academy all the time, around the track and around the field, just to vent. It was a wonderful thing for me.

My junior year I was a starting running back. We played all the schools in this area. At our Thanksgiving Day game my senior year, oh my God, 6,000 people were there. We played over at Turners Falls, and we won 14-6. I scored the winning touchdown, and I got carried off the field. Everyone came off the stands, and they picked me up and they carried me off on their shoulders. (Crying) It was tremendous.

I did everything on the football team. I returned punts and kick-offs. I should have been a captain. My senior year came, nuh-uh.

I got a full scholarship to Springfield College, and I didn’t take it. I went to UMass instead. I chose UMass because I just wanted to play football. When I got out in ’75 (he graduated with a bachelor of science in physical education), I had two pro-football tryouts. I flew out to Seattle, Washington, tried out for the Seattle Seahawks. Nothing happened with that. I think if I’d had a sports agent, something could have happened. And then the year after, I tried out for the Washington Redskins.

Some of the guys said, “You should keep trying.” And I said, “You know, I gotta get on with my life.” That’s when the railroad came in. That was a job like no other job I ever had in my life. Mentally and physically demanding job.

My uncle, he knew a track foreman, and he wanted to get me on the railroad back in 1972-1973. It was a summer job (during a college break). I worked on the railroad, and I fell in love with it. I liked being around the guys. It kept me in good shape for football. It took me a long time once I got out of school — seven, eight years — to get back on the railroad. I tried, but I couldn’t get back on it.

I worked on the back of a rubbish packer garbage truck for two or three years. Stayed in shape, worked out all the time, rode my 10-speed, ran.

Basically, that was it until the railroad called in ’81.

I was on a spareboard, which I was working every eight hours for 80 hours a week. I was only sleeping four hours a day, which was no good for me. I always had to travel. I worked out east for 24 years. That and passenger service. I worked out of North Station, and then I worked out of South Station in Boston.

Some, not all, railroad employees did some shaky stuff. They’d be stealing my time slips. They cut the lock off my locker. I told the company about it; they did nothing about it.

I’m not a fan of man.

I gotta tell you, I gotta be honest with you. I’m paranoid of the police.

I get paranoid when I see them — when I see them behind me and when I’m in the car and they’re still behind me. I get a little paranoid when I go into a place, and there’s two of them, you know? It just doesn’t make me feel good.

I never had a problem with the Greenfield police. My grandson is a policeman. He wants to be a state policeman.

Ever since this coverage started ... of all these blacks getting killed. It was never like that before. It’s got my attention.

Something’s been lost. Ever since I got off the railroad, something’s been off. My wife said to me, “You’ve been on that train for 32 years, now you’re gonna get to see how we live out here and how everything goes.” And I’m saying, “What the heck is she talking about?”

But I’ve seen exactly what she’s said. We’ve lost something where there’s no respect anymore for anybody. There are some people who are respectful but more people who aren’t. And the courtesy and stuff, it’s just gone.

I probably could do a lot more than what I’m doing, but I’m tired from all the hours I’ve worked. I’m very content with the lifestyle I’m living. I’m staying in excellent physical shape. I’m getting my rest.

I hope things get better. That’s my wish.

Bera Dunau can be reached at Readers are invited to submit ideas for future subjects of “The Backstory.”

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