Photo by Jay Buckner
The story of Monroe Peeler and Berea College is incomplete without telling the story of his grandfather, John William Bate, who was born into slavery on a farm near Louisville. Emancipated with his family during the Civil War, Bate struggled in poverty until he followed a favorite teacher to Berea College. The quiet Christian campus was a switch from Louisville’s more indecorous tobacco industry where he had been laboring, but he said the “personal kindness and unselfish devotion of the faculty” endeared him to continuing his education.
John Bate graduated in 1881 and took over a one-room schoolhouse for African American children in nearby Danville, Ky. He transformed what became the Bate School into a proper educational facility serving 600 students, and he presided as principal for 59 years, retiring at age 85.
“I have just sketchy images of sitting on his knee when I was 4 or 5,” Peeler said. “My mother brought me to Danville to see him.”
That was just a short time before Bate died in 1945. Berea College was recognized throughout Peeler’s upbringing as the key institution in the transformation of Bate’s life and the subsequent opportunities his family enjoyed.
“There is a real sensitive connection,” he said, “a real sense of family around Berea and the people who have attended. It’s a very comforting feeling to be a part of it.”
Peeler grew up in Greensboro, N.C., challenged both by segregation and the social concerns of being the son of a school principal and a school teacher in the days of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. He played in a band and went off to Kent State University to study architecture before switching to business. After graduating, he joined Lubrizol Corporation near Cleveland.
Though a businessman throughout the year, Peeler took up motorcycling and spent nine summers, from 1969 to 1978, riding across North America. In the mid-1980s, he was recruited to a new role at Lubrizol, finally putting his architecture skills to work by designing office spaces across the nation. Peeler eventually retired from Lubrizol and began a new career of investing, at which he has been very successful.
Peeler’s success in business motivates him to support Berea College students who are business minded, like the students involved in the Motley Fool Investment Club, which manages a sizable stock portfolio earmarked for the College endowment.
“We need people who understand investing, the importance of it,” Peeler said. “I think as we go forward, we really need to connect with that in a very positive way and have people coming out who want to grow our economy.”
In addition, Peeler wants to help others the way he was helped. “I worked for things, but doors were opened, and you want to do the same thing for other people,” he said. “Berea’s mission is compelling because it reaches out to the underserved and selects those who are most deserving of an education.”
Peeler also praises the College’s emphasis on work ethic and believes that personal trait, in combination with assistance from others, can create positive outcomes. A positive outcome for him is knowing his name will appear on the Berea College Legacy Wall, which lists all the people who have named Berea in their estate plans.
“I feel good about the connection to Berea College,” Peeler admitted. “I look at my life, what I value, and I want to do those things that are inspirational and business focused. Berea College really meets all of those.”