, Gloucester, MA

May 10, 2007

Rockport artist has thousands of stories from her 100 years

By Gail McCarthy , Staff writer

Margaret "Peg" Woodfall Williams, who turned 100 on Tuesday, shared her centennial as the center of attention at a party populated by artists, writers, political activists, merchants and many others.

Stories of her charm and spirit flow easily from her friends and neighbors, who share a close-knit neighborhood on School Street in Rockport.

Williams, a watercolor painter with an unusual design background, beginning with her early career designing Aubusson rugs, was born in Philadelphia and grew up in the Flatbush section of New York City's Brooklyn neighborhood. She attended the Pratt Institute of Art in New York City.

Between the dozens of greetings, Williams talked about her family. She admired the work of her father, Orville P. Williams, considered a top political cartoonist of the 20th century. He depicted political events and issues of the times during the Depression, Prohibition, and the two world wars.

Following World War II, Peg Williams moved permanently to Rockport and began selling paintings for the noted artist Max Kuehne. She had always summered here on School Street, living in her grandmother's house.

"Woodfall is my grandfather's name. He was a contractor here who at one time owned all of School Street," she said.

Friends admire the centenarian for her sense of humor.

When asked to what she attributes her longevity, she commented that she never married. But she traveled the world and found great companionship with her beloved dachshunds, through which she met many friends, who also shared an affinity for dogs.

"They were the love of my life," she said, especially her last dog, Tess.

A close friend, Ingeborg Lauterstein, remembered that if tourists left their dogs locked in a parked car, they might be sorry.

"Peg would think nothing of throwing a bucket of water through the slightly open window to cool the poor darling down," she said.

Williams cherished the new life she found in this seaside village, known for its artists.

"I love the outdoors, and there's nowhere else on earth like Rockport. It has everything," Williams said. "I'm not a city person, really."

She was an avid rock climber and champion tennis player. As a girl she played field hockey and rode horses.

"I can't complain about my life," she said while seated on a plush couch in her neighbor Deborah Cowan's home, surrounded by friends, fresh flowers, birthday cards, food and gifts.

Roger Armstrong, owner of State of the Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, is a Williams aficionado.

"She's one of my favorite women in the world," he said.

For several years, Williams has gone up in a cherry-picker truck to place the star on top of the town's Christmas tree.

"The town provides the bucket loader to put the star at the top, but I think the loader was for show because she could climb up there if she wanted to," Armstrong said. "She's a hugely independent woman, who has a magnificent and varied past. She's always very upbeat. People who live that long, and do that well, have to maintain a positive and optimistic outlook. That is key."

He described her artwork as modern and commended her talent as a colorist.

"She has a magnificent palette, and her colors are vibrant," Armstrong said.

Williams' love of art blossomed when she became part of the Cape Ann Watercolor Painters, which formed in 1967. She began painting with at least 35 painters each week, including Betty Lou Schlemm.

The members developed lifelong friendships.

"When you start to talk about art, Peggy's name will go down in art history. I just know it. Peggy is very collectible. She will be known like many of the great painters on Cape Ann," Schlemm said.

Williams is an emeritus member of Rockport Art Association and a past member of the North Shore Arts Association.

Her landscapes, floral scenes and still lifes burst with color.

"Her subject matter may be flowers and landscape, but her vision is unique, and so full of vitality," said Lauterstein, an author. "A sad person who bought one of her paintings said that he can turn to view one of her flower paintings and it can simply change his day."

Williams has been known to change the demeanor of those in contact with her.

Lauterstein recalled a trip to Cape Cod years ago when Lauterstein had an interview to promote her first book. She was driving fast because the two women wanted time for lunch when a state trooper stopped the car.

Lauterstein recalled that Williams first told the trooper that she loved his uniform and that he was so handsome.

"This young lady is a great writer. We are driving to the television studio, but we need to have lunch first," Williams told the trooper. "Know a good place to get a quick bite?" she then asked.

The trooper put his ticket book away and showed the two woman the way to a restaurant.

Cowan, her neighbor who hosted the party, is also a fan.

"She's an icon and really quite a character. If you think of Katharine Hepburn turning 100, you'll get it," said Cowan. In fact, Williams was born just four days before the film actress.

"She's totally self-sufficient. She walks to the library every day. She walks to the coffee shop and market. You can't keep her down. She's always out and about," Cowan said.

Williams' "baby" sister, Ruth, her only sibling, came to visit from Connecticut earlier in the week. She is 97. A third sister died at the age of 5.

"People just love her because she is so outgoing and playful. She has this incredible memory and so many stories. But she always wants to know what's going on in your life, too. Her blue eyes look right at you. She's such an inspiration to everyone," Cowan said.

Phyllis Rudolph, owner of the Main Street Coffee Shop, knows that Williams will order a small coffee with cream, and a cranberry muffin or a BLT sandwich with onion.

"She comes almost every day for as long as I can remember," Rudolph said. "She is precious."

Each year her sister buys Williams a gift certificate from the Coffee Shop

Lauterstein said she shares her zest for living with Williams.

"Peg makes the best of every day and every moment. She is a lover of life," she said.

The two women would take the Sunday walks in the woods with their dogs with resident Ted Tarr each Sunday.

"One Sunday there was deep powder snow. We were the only ones who showed up in snow suits. Ted took us around the reservoir, with my child sinking down and rolling in snow. The scene around us was a Hibbard winter scene," Lauterstein recalled of that walk decades ago.

Williams said she is grateful for her large circle of friends, "especially if they can cook."

Lauterstein honored her friend by cooking up a pot of her favorite seafood chowder.

Williams also has been known to flirt. She loves good friends, good food, fine art and all things good.

When Dr. Tom Pearce stopped in to share a birthday greeting, her smile grew even larger. He gave her a kiss on the cheek before leaving to attend to his patients.

After the attractive physician left the room, Williams commented: "That was a nice dessert."