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A handyman with a sense of justice in Santa Fe

December 3, 2018

They invented the term “ramrod straight” for W. Peyton George of Santa Fe.

Policeman.

FBI agent.

Attorney.

Colonel.

Handyman.

Um … handyman?

Yes, sir. Yes, ma’am. It’s just one line, buried deep on a three-page résumé, just a little thing to do in a lifetime of big things done.

But when it comes to Peyton George’s humanity, it deserves to be the lead. Handyman is the reason he’s one of The New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference in 2018.

George, 82, can often be found on the roofs or under the plumbing in the homes of some of the city’s less fortunate citizens — quietly performing odd jobs and small repairs that make quality of life quite tangible.

“It was like a miracle,” says 88-year-old Joel Ensana, who recently watched in amazement as George scuttled up to his roof and repaired a broken skylight that had turned Ensana’s ceiling into a sieve.

“I don’t know,” Ensana continues, still sounding a bit stunned. “I knew they had volunteers at the senior center. But for a handyman like that to come out on the weekend … just unbelievable.”

George, an enlistee with the city’s Retired Senior Volunteer Program, gets a lot of that. And if the huzzahs enlarge his ego, it doesn’t show as he answers questions — precisely, quietly — about being the Mr. Fix It of the Sangre de Cristos.

“I get,” he says evenly, “a personal satisfaction out of making things work.”

George may be a part-time handyman, but he’s not an everyman. No one with his life story could be.

George grew up near Ada, Okla., 89 (not 90) miles southeast of Oklahoma City — living on a farm of dairy cows, hay and corn where there was too little money and too little time to just call someone when something broke. So, yeah, that helped him learn the tools of the trades.

But Ada was just the start, and George’s life expanded to exceed even his own imagination. As a young man, he roughnecked in the oil fields, then became a cop in Oklahoma City for three years. From there, he went to the FBI, serving as a Cold War agent assigned to track Soviet spies in Washington.

Oh, along the way, he served in the Army Judge Advocate General Corps, reaching the rank of colonel. Then it was on to private practice at high-powered firms near Washington, D.C., plus a few other adventures in government work.

But in 2001, George’s wife, Nancy, decided they needed to leave the Beltway rat race and retire in Santa Fe.

“We renovate a house, moved in and two months later, she was diagnosed with acute leukemia and died within a year,” he says.

George has navigated the heartaches — he also lost a dear partner, Barbara Nau, to cancer, three years ago — by keeping busy. He’s served as a member of Santa Fe County’s ethics board; he stays connected to the friends he’s made in the FBI, in business, in the Army. And in keeping with his penchant for turning a wrench to things that need fixing, he recently was appointed a hearing officer for the state Supreme Court in legal disciplinary matters.

There’s other stuff to do, too. He’s got a house off Old Santa Fe Trail to keep up. He travels a lot, and when he’s in town, his buds at La Fonda’s La Fiesta Lounge and Tiny’s know him by name. Hell, he’s even in a bocce ball group. It’s a full life.

Every so often, his phone will ring, and it’s the most basic, elemental request. It’s the program, alerting him to someone whose handicap ramp has broken, whose pilot light is out, whose shower needs grab bars, whose old and jury-rigged thermostat is being held together by a connection that seems certain to someday scream “911, what’s your emergency?”

And so, he heads out. The people George meets don’t know he used to chase criminals and spies — and really, justice — in his other lives. They’re just thrilled this dignified, walking-tall fella shows up to make their lives a little better.

“It’s almost like he crinkles his nose and it’s done,” says Leslie Lockett, one of George’s nominators.

Volunteers aren’t supposed to spend their own money on supplies, but … “I know Peyton pitches in and does that out of the kindness of his heart,” says Triston Lovato-Armstrong, who administrates the program.

George doesn’t think all that much about it. Things need fixing; he knows how; he’s got the time. Plus, he gets a gift out of this work, too.

“I’ve had such a great life and so many experiences, and people have done so much for me,” he says. “It’s the giving back thing.”

Really, he doesn’t want to make too big a deal out of getting the heater to work. He allows a small smile as he recounts going to the home of a woman who’s 85 and weighs maybe 85 pounds. He repairs the thermostat and is ready to leave when the woman says something about a garbage disposal.

Sure, he’ll fix that, too. He finds the reset button and, well, crinkles his nose.

“I flip the switch,” he says, “and they think I’m a genius.”

No, sir, Mr. George. They just think you’re generous.

Put that one on the résumé.

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