Toni Peabody, 89; outspoken wife of governor’s governor wife aided disabled; at 89
Less than a month after Endicott Peabody was elected governor of Massachusetts in November 1962, his wife, Toni, served notice that she envisioned a different role as the governor’s wife than her predecessors had taken.
“As governor’s wife,” she told the Globe, “I won’t spend my life cutting ribbons.”
Elegant and eloquent, Mrs. Peabody brought boundless energy to raising awareness and funding for hospitals and programs that helped developmentally disabled children. She rallied women to brighten the lives of shut-ins and promoted the value of libraries around the state. And she did not shy from offering opinions about the day’s most sensitive issues.
“You can make all the laws you want about civil rights, but children have to be taught equal rights at home,” she told the Globe in July 1963. “It starts in the cradle.”
Mrs. Peabody, whose charisma boosted her husband’s many campaigns, died of complications of dementia Thursday in Sherrill House in Jamaica Plain. She was 89 and had lived many years in Hollis, N.H., and Cambridge.
“She was very beautiful and very glamorous,” said her daughter, Barbara of New York City.
“She had green eyes and blond hair and was quite striking looking,” said her son Bob of Jamaica Plain. “Those green eyes could be quite penetrating, so that look could unnerve or put people at ease.”
Just as striking were Mrs. Peabody’s comments, which not everyone welcomed. Early in her husband’s term, she cast her eye on the State House and found it lacking.
“I’d like to give the whole place a thorough cleaning,” she told the Globe in February 1963. “If this were a house, I couldn’t live in it.”
That didn’t set well with those who thought she was being too critical of the cleaning staff, whose hurt feelings she assuaged by welcoming them to a tea party.
In a March 1963 column in the Globe, she shared some of the mail she received from constituents. One asked: “Who do you think you are?” Another said: “Why don’t you drop dead?”
Her State House improvements drew approval from the Globe’s editorial board, which wrote that the “architecturally famous building at long last faces such a cleaning as it hasn’t experienced this century.”
By shining light on those who were often shunned, Mrs. Peabody’s work on behalf of the developmentally disabled had a more lasting impact, however, and she didn’t confine her efforts to hugs at hospitals for the benefit of reporters and photographers.
At Thanksgiving vacation, her son Endicott, Jr. of Scottsdale, Ariz., recalled returning home from boarding school.
“I was probably 12, and she informed me that we were having three mentally retarded people for our Thanksgiving meal,” he said. “I looked at her stunned. I didn’t know what to expect, and of course, they were lovely kids our age, and we did that frequently.”
Born in Bermuda, Barbara Welch Gibbons was the daughter of Morris and Maude (Welch) Gibbons. For decades, her father was a member of the island’s Parliament, and the family’s estate was called Windy Crest.
Because she had a speech impediment as a child, her family sent her to a convent to see a nun who was an elocution specialist.
“She taught me to breathe from the diaphragm and advised me that if you talk to people in normal conversation you may become a capable speaker,” Mrs. Peabody told the Globe in December 1962. “But more important, Sister Anna Maria taught me that if you are always yourself, you never have to remember who you are.”
Mrs. Peabody attended Penn Hall, a girls’ preparatory school in Chambersburg, Pa., where she picked up her nickname. Her father called her Carol, because he thought she looked like the actress Carol Lombard, but school friends called her Toni and it stuck.
As a teenager at the outset of World War II, she returned to Bermuda to work in the British military’s ciphering office, and her mother turned Windy Crest into a place where injured and weary servicemen could convalesce.
“She had the time of her life back then,” her daughter said. “She was working for the war effort. She told me she had five dates a day: one for coffee, one for tea, one for lunch.”
At a dinner one night, she was seated next to Endicott Peabody, who was known as Chub and served on a submarine. He courted her on trips around the island in a Jeep and they married in June 1944, just before he shipped out for duty.
After the war, they returned to Greater Boston. He graduated from Harvard Law School and the family settled on Larch Road in Cambridge.
As her husband, a Democrat, launched campaign after campaign, “she was a great asset to Daddy,” Bob said. “He was pretty good with communication skills, but not in her league. Those who loved her, loved her passionately. She was very magnetic.”
Such star power made her a good fund-raiser, too, including for other candidates when she and her husband were away from Massachusetts while he practiced law in Washington.
In the early 1980s, they returned to New England, this time to Hollis, N.H., where he campaigned for US Senate, losing to Warren Rudman, the incumbent Republican.
“She had more energy than most families combined,” Endicott Jr. said. “I’ve always been impressed at how hard she worked, and it never seemed to end.”
Nevertheless, he added, whenever his father “wanted to campaign again, she did not always say, ‘OK, let’s do another one.’ She’d say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ She’d push him very hard to give her a good reason why he should do it, why he should put his family through this again. My mother always had the urge to serve her family first.”
After Mrs. Peabody’s husband died of leukemia in 1997, she lived in Boston.
In addition to her three children, Mrs. Peabody leaves six grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
A service to celebrate Mrs. Peabody’s life will be held at 11 a.m. July 12 in the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill.
Just before her husband was elected governor in 1962, Mrs. Peabody spoke with the Globe, voicing concerns about the toll campaigns take on families and “how lonely the children are getting. I try to make it up to them by buying little things wherever I go and leaving them on their beds – so they always wake up to a surprise.”
With candor rare for a candidate’s wife in those years, she added that “campaigning, walking around in the rain, being away from our three children is the kind of living I wouldn’t choose in a million years.”
Why, she was asked, does she do it?
“To take care of him,” she said of her husband.
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