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Building a circle of love

The actions Greg took to remember his friend in one of the darkest times of his own life changed everything, he said. “My life now, with my wife and my sons – I’m just a lucky person.”

Yvonne and Greg
Yvonne and GregRead moreCourtesy of the couple

The brotherhood of friends

They met as teenage boys down the Shore and brought their friendship home to Montgomery County.

Greg McPeak lived in Cheltenham and Richard Connolly nearby in Elkins Park. “He was a leader, and would be the one to get people together,” Greg said. “There were four of us who hung out all the time.”

Greg and Richard soon felt completely at home at each other’s houses, and considered each other’s mother and father a second set of parents.

They were adults when Richard told Greg he wanted to be a Big Brother through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. “He put me down for a reference, and he called me to say please take it seriously when they call,” Greg said. “This was important to him.”

Richard once gave his car to a struggling co-worker. Another time, Greg told Richard about a friend who could not afford airfare to come home from Albuquerque. “He had never met my friend, but said, ‘Here,’ and handed me $50 to give to him. That’s just the kind of guy Richard was.”

It wasn’t long after that, on Dec. 29, 1991, that Richard took his “Little Brother” on a trip to Baltimore. The following evening, he was going to Philadelphia to check out a restaurant and talk to the owners – he had managed restaurants and had dreams of opening his own place. Richard invited Greg to join him and Greg planned to, but Greg’s evening started with his brother and cousin, and by the time he tried to call Richard, Richard had already headed into the city.

Grief and the search for meaning

Greg’s phone rang in the wee hours the next morning. It was Richard’s roommate. There had been a terrible accident. A tractor-trailer driver from Michigan was approaching the Broad Street underpass on Roosevelt Boulevard when he saw a confusing sign: Clearanc 4 FT It was supposed to say: Clearance 14 feet – the e and, more importantly, the numeral 1 were missing. The trucker from out of state slammed on his brakes. Richard was driving behind him in his Pontiac Fiero and could not react in time. He was in the hospital. They were trying to reach his parents.

“I had to call his mom and tell her,” Greg said.

Greg’s best friend was in a persistent vegetative state. Greg visited Richard often, even more frequently when Richard was moved to a nursing home close to the first location of Greg’s business, McPeak Family Chiropractic. Greg read Richard the sports pages and told him he loved him, but Richard did not react.

“I was supposed to go with him that night,” Greg said. “I kept thinking, if I had been there, would something different had happened? Would my friend still be where he was? Could I have changed something? I prayed a lot.”

On Jan. 15, 1997, Richard died of complications from the accident.

Greg wanted to honor his friend, support Richard’s parents -- whom he called Mr. and Mrs. C. -- in their grief, and channel his own grief into something positive. “He was a Big Brother, and we used to play golf together, so I thought, I’ll start a golf tournament to raise money for the organization.”

That November, he called the Big Brothers Big Sisters Association of Philadelphia and spoke to the director of special events: Yvonne Gerstberger.

An end yields a beginning

Yvonne and her boss met Greg for lunch in Jenkintown. “He was really nice, and really cute, and I really liked him,” she told her boss afterward. “But I did notice the wedding ring.”

About three months later, Greg’s wife told him she didn’t want to be married anymore. Life, and memorial golf outing planning meetings, continued. One meeting was at the office of Richard’s father, Dick, a financial adviser and former Frankford High School baseball coach.

Greg mentioned his approaching 37th birthday. “Wow,” said Yvonne. “Don’t you think it’s time to start having little bambinos?”

Her words stung. Greg really wanted kids. His soon-to-be-ex did not. “I’m getting a divorce,” he told Yvonne. “Maybe if I get married again.”

The awkwardness didn’t last. Greg came to realize that he was looking forward to the planning meetings. After one of them, the LuLu Country Club golf pro had a question for Greg: “What’s going on with you and Yvonne?”

Just before the first Richard M. Connolly Memorial Golf Outing, Greg decided to find out. “I asked her out for a drink.”

“After that first date, we saw each other something like 14 days straight,” said Yvonne.

They were smitten.

“He got a million good guy points from the get-go,” said Yvonne. “What 30-something decides to take on this amount of work to do something kind for the memory of a friend and to raise money for an organization? I was 30, I had dated and not found the one. And here he was – someone I just wanted to be around, to learn more about. We would spend so many hours on the phone that I was tired at work the next day.”

“Yvonne was just very vivacious, outgoing, and smart,” Greg said. He loved the confidence she exuded when speaking in public. “And she just had this love for kids. She really cared about them.” Her work with Big Brothers Big Sisters showed him this. And then there was the time he picked her up for a trip and found her playing games with the neighborhood kids.

More plans

In April 1999, Greg and Yvonne moved into a Rydal house together. Yvonne met Greg’s cousin, a jeweler, in New York to pick out a diamond for her engagement ring. Yvonne made a single request: Please do not ask in front of the 1,000-plus people who would be attending the March 2000 Big Brothers Big Sisters Big City Ball at 30th Street Station.

Greg had not been planning to propose in front of everyone, but he had planned to ask in front of the table where Yvonne’s friends were seated. He switched to Plan B. “I have something to tell you,” he whispered to her that night. She followed him down the stairs next to one of the train tracks, where he knelt.

They married at St. Paul’s Lutheran in Lafayette Hill on Aug. 25, 2000. A reception for 40 was held at the LuLu Country Club, and the next day, a bus took the couple and their guests to the Hotel Hershey, where Yvonne and friends went to the spa, Greg golfed with the guys, families hit the amusement park, and then everyone met on the veranda at dinner time for a huge lobster feast.

Yvonne’s parents were born in Germany, and that October, the couple hired a DJ and gathered 150 aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends for a big Oktoberfest in their back yard. By the end of that month, Yvonne was expecting.

Yvonne and Greg took their month-old baby Brian to Ocean City to meet Mr. and Mrs. C. “His middle name is Richard,” Greg told them.

Past, present, future

Greg, who is now 60, is still a chiropractor. Yvonne, 53, is now grant director for the National Philanthropic Trust.

The golf outing honored the memory of Richard Connolly for 10 years and raised well over $100,000 for Big Brothers Big Sisters. Richards’ parents were very involved, and it brought their extended family together every year. The couple stepped down from their leadership roles when their younger son Jack, who is now 16, was 5.

Richard’s father died in 2019. Greg continues to call and visit Richard’s mother, Bernice. “He is so, so supportive,” said Bernice, who is now 86. “He has been a very faithful second son.”

Greg and Yvonne live in Oreland on the edge of the golf course where the memorial outing took place. They celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary this past Wednesday and plan further celebrations in New York City. They and their two sons frequently enjoy golfing on the LuLu course.

“The golf outing is the foundation of what has become our entire life,” said Yvonne.

The actions Greg took to remember his friend in one of the darkest times of his own life changed everything, he said. “My life now, with my wife and my sons – I’m just a lucky person.”

Greg believes that Richard, his always generous and supportive friend, would be very pleased.