Learning from tragedy | SierraSun.com

Learning from tragedy

Katherine Morris

Judy Peckler never wanted to be a leader in the campaign against drunk drivers.

But after losing half of her family at the hands of one, she’s taken it upon herself to speak out in hopes that others can avoid the pain and loss that have defined her life over the last four years.

One of the places Peckler’s story has had the greatest impact has been right here in Truckee – the site of the horrific crash that stole the lives of her husband, James, 52, daughter, Jill, 21 and son, Jeff, 15.

On the evening of Jan. 17, 1997, the three members of the Los Gatos family were heading southbound on Highway 267 – on the way to their cabin for a powder weekend on the slopes.

They never made it to their destination, though – They were struck head-on by a speeding drunk driver – a repeat offender from Truckee whose blood-alcohol level was triple the legal limit.

“Drunk driving is never an accident. It’s always a choice – a choice that destroys innocent lives and shatters dreams,” said Peckler, as she stood in the cornmeal-colored meadow near the Martis Valley crash site last week – a site less than five minutes away from her family’s Northstar-at-Tahoe destination that night.

Last Thursday, Peckler and her two remaining daughters, Jennifer Colson and Jana Morgan, made the difficult trip to the site for the unveiling of a special memorial sign to commemorate their three fallen heroes – a dedicated father and successful real estate broker, an All-American athlete and premed major and a bright Los Gatos High freshman with a penchant for the written word.

“I just want to thank all of you – friends and family – who’ve helped us walk this path grief and now, reach this healing milestone,” Peckler told the crowd of 50 friends, family and local law enforcement that joined to family for a tearful, roadside ceremony.

“This sign is symbolic of every family and every life that has been impacted by drunk driving,” she added, as she glanced towards the portraits of James, Jill and Jeff, positioned next to the podium from which she spoke.

The metallic blue Caltrans sign, which lists the names and ages of the deceased below the words, “Please Don’t Drink and Drive,” is the only of its kind to have been erected in the greater North Tahoe area.

Caltrans Media Spokesman Mark Dinger hopes it will be the last.

“Fourteen thousand people drive will by this sign every day,” Dinger said. “We’re just hoping that if people see the sign and read the names, if they hear Judy’s story, maybe we’ll be able to stop people from drinking and driving. Even if we can change one person’s mind, we’ve done something.”

The Peckler’s story has already touched one particular group of students from Tahoe-Truckee and North Lake Tahoe High Schools, who presented Judy with flowers, hugs and a check to cover the cost of the $1,000 memorial at last week’s ceremony.

The students, who are part of “Youth in Action” – a group of teens who educate peers on the dangers of drugs and alcohol, as well as offers alternatives to substance use and abuse – first encountered Peckler when she spoke at the group’s “Shattered Dreams” event last school year.

“Shattered Dreams” features of a staged drunk driving accident that attempts to deter teens from getting behind the wheel while intoxicated.

“These kids were just so moved by her story,” said Melinda Maehler, a community service officer with the Placer County Sheriff’s Office, who also leads the group.

“They really worked so hard to get donations and raise this money.”

Maehler and her husband, Wes, a California Highway Patrol officer, were two of those who responded to the grisly scene four years ago.

“It was the first time in my law enforcement career that a face was put on a tragedy like this,” Maehler said. “When I found out that a family had been lost – especially as a mother of two boys – I knew I had to find a way to give something back to Mrs. Peckler. That’s when I started holding workshops in the high school and dedicating them to this family.”

“Judy, just know that we all love you,” Maehler added.

This year was the first that Peckler spoke to local students.

“At first I wasn’t sure it was something that I was ready to do,” Peckler said. “I had only been to Tahoe once since the accident for the sentencing of the driver, but that was years ago and I hadn’t been back since.”

Peckler’s feelings waned though and the visit actually proved a salve for some of her wounds.

“Truckee and this whole area had been our second-home for many years and it felt so good to come back and walk around downtown, go in all of the familiar shops and restaurants,” she said.

“It was like going back to your hometown – near everything that I loved – and I realized that I had needed to do it for a long time. Of course speaking to the students was slightly traumatic, but there was also something very healing about it. I’ve always felt very connected to kids and it’s always been so important to me to take advantage of any opportunities I have to make a difference in kids’ lives.”

One of the ways she’s chosen to do that locally is with two annual $500 scholarships for students at NTHS and TTHS who exemplify compassion, respect and kindness.

“After hearing that the students up here had raised the money to pay for the memorial sign it really made me realize how much I wanted to thank the area for all of the support – not just for the care they provided to my family that terrible night, but for the care that they have provided and continue to provide for myself and my children,” she said.

“Because it’s you, the students, who are the dream keepers for my family,” she added.