Michele Davis: You Just Never Know: The True Story of Sol Peska (essay)

Southern Legitimacy Statement:  I believe that in a previous life I was from the Deep South. Not just south of the Mason-Dixon line, but as far south as you can go before wading into the Gulf. The voices in my head have accents, soft and slow. I’m comfortable in heat and humidity, with lazy fans turning on the ceiling of large, covered porches. I’ve been known to buy high-backed wicker chairs just for their feel, and drink cooling sweet tea while reading. I may have been sentenced to living in the fast-paced, concrete-and-steel cities of the North, but my heart has always been in the South, where I’m sure I’m truly from.

You Just Never Know: The True Story of Sol Peska

Tarpon Springs is a small town on the Gulf Coast of Florida. It was populated in the late 1800s by Greek immigrants who came to dive its blue waters for the abundant sponges. Even today you are more likely to hear Greek than English spoken in the colorful shops and quaint restaurants of the Sponge Docks, where the aroma of gyros and music of Greece fill the air.

Solomon Peska, on the other hand, was from New York City, and spoke with a heavy Brooklyn accent. He was raised on a farm, served in World War II, and was a hospital security guard before he retired to Tarpon Springs.

A widower with no children or close relatives, Sol lived frugally in a cluttered, one-bedroom, 1972 trailer in the aging Linger Longer Mobile Home Park. (Yes, that was its real name.) He owned an old car, but preferred to walk wherever he went.

One of the places he went to every day was the town’s library, where he was greeted by name as he made his way past the checkout desk to a table in the back. There he opened the library’s only copies of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and read them cover to cover. You might pass right by and never notice the old man sitting there in his well-worn clothes and favorite fishing hat. He was easily overlooked.

According to Sol’s ritual, when the newspapers were finished he would lean back in a comfortable chair and doze until lunchtime, at which point he walked over to the Walton Avenue Community Center–run by Neighborly Senior Services (yes, also its real name)–to enjoy the food and socializing. Most afternoons he returned to the library to check out videos of his favorite movies—he was partial to classic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and those from the 1950s and ‘60s.

Sol didn’t talk about himself, but people said he was personable and had a good sense of humor, although he had few close friends.

Then on Christmas Eve, 1996, Solomon Peska from New York died. He was 85.

His death might have passed unnoted except for the fact that Sol had a secret–one he’d held close the whole time he lived there.

Like an improbable twist in a novel, it seems that thrifty Sol had an estate worth close to $1.3 million. But that’s not the best part. With no family, Sol had divided his assets equally among the Tarpon Springs Friends of the Library, Neighborly Senior Services, and the United Way of Pinellas County.

No longer did the library have to pare its list of desired books because of a tight city budget, Neighborly Senior Services was able to buy a van to take seniors on outings and purchase equipment for its office, and the United Way could help homeless families find temporary housing and jobs.

The agencies decided they wanted his gift to continue into the future, so they invested the bulk of the money and used the earnings for what they needed.

One of the first things the Friends of the Library did was to add the Sol Peska Collection to its shelves. This was a compilation of over 70 movies that won Academy Awards for Best Picture, as well as 100 movies honored as the “best of all time” by the American Film Institute. Sol would have loved that.

Today you’ll find his name everywhere in Tarpon Springs. The Sol Peska Film Festival each year features audience-pleaser films not shown in local theaters. The library’s Peska Business Center is a busy place that helps patrons find jobs, successfully start or run their own businesses, and research financial information.

The Friends of the Library, through the Peska Fund, sent the Tarpon Springs High School choir to a national choir competition, and provided for the high school band to receive private lessons from members of the Florida Orchestra. The community benefitted in turn from free concerts and students who then volunteered at the library.

And there were annual Sol Peska Student Film Contests where students wrote, shot, and edited videos; winners received cash prizes.

On the front of the library there is a brass plaque with a picture of a man. It says:

Sol Peska


Friends of the Library

In Memory of a true friend and generous benefactor
of the Tarpon Springs Library

The somewhat shabby, elderly man who used the newspapers at the library to research his stock portfolio left what multiplied into millions of dollars to the institutions that befriended him in his later years, and he, in turn, improved the lives of the citizens of Tarpon Springs.

What you see on the outside may not be who that person really is. And that’s the true story of Sol Peska.