I was Peter G. Decker’s friend, confidant, and social pal throughout the 1970s when Peter was in his mid-30s and I was in my early 30s and living in Norfolk, VA. Although Pete was already a member of the board of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a very successful trial lawyer, and a popular emcee and entertainer, these were fun-filled years before he accepted the leadership roles that prompted so many subsequent local, state, regional, and national honors.
Before I came into the Lebanese and Greek family circle of Pete and Bess Decker, my social manners were those of a straight-laced Englishman. I would shake hands, but never hug. But with the Deckers I had to hug and even accept kisses from all their parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins! My rigid posture on greeting Decker friends and family gave me away, and Pete seemed to enjoy making me sweat, especially at Easter when I joined all the Decker family men in visiting the homebound elderly. As I followed the line of men into a stranger’s house, I was hugged and kissed just like all the others. I thus began to melt under the great warmth of their culture, and I came to believe that the English social restraint that I had been taught was plainly wrongheaded.
I will never forget the time that Pete was hosting in his home a refugee from the Lebanese Civil War, a cousin who was a dentist. By way of introduction, Pete told the bearded young man that I was his brother, and then he said to both of us, “Kiss your brother.” I hugged the stranger and kissed him on both cheeks. Tears filled my eyes. Peter Decker had a great gift for getting into your heart. What the gesture meant to the man who was losing his homeland, I can only imagine.
What can you give to givers like Pete and Bess Decker? My then-wife, Theresa, a Louisiana Cajun, could cook special dishes for them, but we could never match their excessive generosity to us. I did, however, manage to give them memorable creative gifts twice. Once on Pete’s birthday, I had an artist render a caricature of Pete’s head from a photograph that I provided. Then I designed a business-type card with the caricature and the bold words “I’m One of Pete’s People” and presented him with a box of 500 of them. Pete loved it! About two weeks later, Pete called me. He needed to print more cards. His people were begging for them, and how could he say no?
The second memorable gift was a poem that I wrote and had framed as a birthday gift for Bess in 1978. My gift was opened next to last at a party at their home. Bess cried when she read it. Poor Pete, he had to follow my gift with his own—a big diamond ring. It was unfair, and he never let me forget it with faces of mock anger. Later, he confided to me that the framed poem was hung on the back of Bess’s bathroom door—her most private space.
Peter owned a great Hatteras-made fishing boat, The Gannet, docked at Rudee Inlet at Virginia Beach. President Jimmy Carter had fished on it; and when it was not a working charter boat, it hosted Pete’s friends and VIPs. Captain Fred Feller, a former Norfolk Police detective, was the major investigator for Pete’s law firm, but what Freddy really loved was fishing the Gulf Stream for tuna and other deep-seas fish.
On several occasions, Pete asked me to host a fishing expedition on The Gannet when he was unavailable. The guests would bring gourmet lunch items, snacks, beer, and a bottle of premium whiskey to be served during the two-hour run to the beach after the fishing day. I brought my camera to document the events and to make sure that each guest later received a gift album of the best photographs. One great trip included a city councilman, our Congressman and his wife, the Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, a Circuit Court Judge, plus three more of us who also caught big fish.
Pete introduced me to Danny Thomas and the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and to Telly Savalas when Telly was at the top of his Kojak television and movie fame. Pete was always inclusive, never exclusive. His circle of friends in Hampton Roads was international and diverse in social class. Walk into a restaurant with Pete, and he seemed to know everybody in the place. From people seated at the tables to the wait staff and chef, they all wanted to greet Pete. Bess had to deal with the situation that often saw us seated at our table while Pete toured the other tables and even the bar.
Pete was also an over-generous tipper, and if you went out for the evening with the Deckers, you had to face the fact that Pete would not allow you to pay any part of the bill. You had to be very creative if you wanted to reciprocate the Deckers’ generosity. One time I helped set up a basketball goal in the Deckers’ back yard and tried to coach their three sons—Peter III, Paul, and Phillip—on the finer points of the game. Other times I took party photographs and ensured that Pete and Bess had album copies.
What I remember most was the fun that we had together. We were still young and spontaneous enough to engage baby sitters on short notice and join other friends for an impromptu restaurant dinner party. Pete, who had played stand-up bass and sang in bands throughout college and law school, knew every working musician in the area. So if there was live music anywhere that we went, Pete was invited on stage. Knowing that I had also performed professionally as a band singer, Pete always insisted that I join him on stage to sing some old standard that the band was sure to know.
For an elaborate corporate Christmas party that I was managing, I wrote a cabaret act for us that featured the Pat Curtis band. Our show was a hit, and when Pete sang a romantic ballad a la recording star Tom Jones, I arranged for two pretty women to throw panties at Pete on stage. It caught Pete by complete surprise! Too bad we didn’t get a photo of the expression on his face when the screaming women threw “their” panties.
Even the best of friends can be separated by their respective destinies. Now divorced, I went to New Orleans to collaborate with my co-author on a new edition of our best-selling Insiders’ Guide to New Orleans, and there I met Pat, now my wife of thirty years. As editor and advisor, she has helped me create over 50 major literary works since our marriage.
Pete grew in service and public stature to become one of the most celebrated Virginians of his generation. On a different path, I withdrew to write the literature of my heart and to fulfill the will to art that revealed itself as my life’s purpose.
In remembrance, and with profound gratitude, being with Peter and Bess Decker those long ago years provided me with some of the best days of my life. The family values that they demonstrated allows me now to embrace everyone that I meet. Any warmth of character and personality that I now possess once began with hugs among the Deckers.