Twenty years ago, Peppino “Pep” Puleo, a retired Detroit police officer, put his passion for golf to work in the fight against mental illness, creating the Michigan NARSAD Golf Classic in support of the organization now called the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. Since his death in 2010, Pep’s family members and friends have kept their promise to him to continue the event, now dedicated to his memory.
From The Quarterly, Spring 2012
25 Years of Progress “Dad loved NARSAD,” says daughter Elizabeth Puleo Tague, who with her husband, Brian Tague, shoulders major responsibility for running the tournament each June. It’s a task to which the two bring their expertise as marketing executives, although, Elizabeth says, “it’s really an easy sell. People here are happy to help an organization so worthwhile, especially when you tell them that 100 percent of the money raised goes to re search.”
Says John Puleo, a Boston attorney, one of Pep’s two sons, who returns to Michigan each year at tournament time to lend his support: “Dad saw in his police work as well as in his personal life the havoc that mental illness could wreak. He felt it deeply and wanted to do something about it.”
Pep wanted to start an outing to raise money to support mental health on the “east s ide” of Detroit, after being inspired by an event put on by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) in a west side suburb. He spent 42 of his 92 years in the Grosse Pointe Michigan area, and this is where, after retiring, he daily pursued that little white ball. For guidance on how to pursue his tournament idea, he turned to Thomas Coles, M.D., a retired hospital administrator and then president of the NAMI affiliate in Pep’s community. Dr. Coles, who has a son with schizophrenia, had learned about NARSAD soon after its founding in 1987. Convinced of the primacy of scientific research in the fight against mental illness, he and the other members of his NAMI group have made it their mission over the years to raise money for NARSAD Grants. That is what he urged Pep to do, and the golf tournament thus started is now the longest running event to benefit the organization, having raised more than $360,000 over the years to fund brain and behavior research.
Unlike Dr. Coles, the Puleo family had not been directly affected by mental illness among its own members, but when Pep was young, a close family friend was diagnosed with schizophrenia. “Sadly, in those days,” says Elizabeth, “people like him were either institutiona lized or kept out of sight. My father did a lot to help his friend, who is still alive, now stabilized on medication and able to live pretty much independently.”
Beyond that early experience, Pep Puleo, grateful for his own good fortune in having been able to rise from hardscrabble beginnings to forge a happy, productive life, firmly believed in giving back. All who knew Pep knew of his devotion to family and community, to his Catholic faith, and to the country that he served wi th honor in World War II.
The son of Italian immigrants, Pep, one of seven children, was born in 1918, in Pennsylvania, where the men in the family worked in the coal mines. The family moved to Detroit when jobs began to open up in the auto industry in the late 1930s as the Great Depression waned. When war broke out in 1941, Pep’s familiarity with his parents’ Sicilian customs and dialect, plus his own attributes of keen mind and physical fitness, led to his being recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the intelligence agency formed after Pearl Harbor, to conduct espionage a ctivities behind enemy lines.
In the summer of 1943, the by then Corporal Puleo, on a mission in Sardinia, was captured by enemy troops, imprisoned and slated for execution (although a sympathetic guard hinted he ’d be spared). He was held for two-and-a-half months, some of the time in solitary confinement, all of the time in deplorable conditions, until Italy surrendered to the Allies. Having been a prisoner of war, he was given the choice of going home or of remaining to help train Italian anti-fascists in intelligence gathering for the Allies. He chose to remain.
After his return to civilian life, Pep ser ved for 37 y ears in the Detroit Police Department, rising to the rank of detective inspector. On retiring from the force, he worked for a while as a consultant for the Wayne County prosecutor’s office. One place he never worked was the traffic division. But, says Elizabeth, citing family lore, one day not long after his return from war service, he happened to be in the station house when a call came in re porting a car crash. The precinct was shorthanded at that moment, and he was asked to respond.
What the young officer encountered at the scene of the accident was a distraught young woman named Jean Mijal with a badly banged up vehicle. Pep offered to help her get her car repaired. In exchange she offered him free dentistry. (She was one of the few women dentists in the area then.) Instead, not long after, they wound up exchanging vows. They were ma rried for 62 years. Jean died in 2011.
In addition to family loyalty and civic engagement, Jean and Pep instilled in their four children—Paula, Joseph, John and Elizabeth—a deep respect for learning. Pep was a voracious reader who, before war interrupted his studies, had thought of becoming a teacher. All of the children went to college and excelled. Jean and Pep also bequeathed a deep appreciation of life’s blessings—of the joys of travel, good food, sports and friends. Says Elizabeth, “Dad was famous for saying that life is a mystery to be lived, not solved. Live the journey, give back, and hope to m ake the world a be tter place.”
“Dad celebrated life as fully as anyone I’ve ever known,” says John Puleo. “He was the ultimate people person. The reason he so connected with people was because he was genuinely interested in his fellow beings. That’s why he touched so many lives in so many different aspects. There was nothing halfway with him.”
And there was nothing halfway about his compassion for people struggling with mental illness. As Elizabeth relates: “I learned from my father, and in the last couple of years of hosting his e vent have seen for myself, how every person at our outing has a story. Mental illness doesn’t just affect the person with the diagnosis, it affects the entire family.”
This year, Pep’s tournament, will be held on June 18 at the Gowanie Golf Club, where Pep was a longtime member. Elizabeth, currently a stay-at-home mother of the three youngest of the eight Puleo grandchildren, is hopeful that the next generation, too, will make sure that P eppino Puleo’s legacy lives on.