His son called last week before the storm arrived, and two of his daughters reached him on Saturday as the blizzard raged. Each delivered the same message: Take it easy. Be careful. Stay inside.
They knew their 83-year-old father. As a kid, James Peoples had worked, mostly barefoot, on his family’s North Carolina tobacco farm, living without electricity and indoor plumbing. As an adult in Washington, he had worked for five decades, mostly as a mover who could bear far more weight than his thin shoulders suggested. On Sunday, his wife of 60 years made a final effort to dissuade him from another day of more work.
“James,” she said, “don’t go out there.”
He did anyway. Their Lincoln Town Car was smothered in snow, and Peoples knew that before long, he’d need it again — for groceries, for his wife’s medication, for an elderly neighbor who wanted a ride. So he shoveled and shoveled until the cream-colored paint once again gleamed in the sunlight.
Then, as he walked back into their apartment building, Peoples collapsed. Within hours, he had succumbed to a heart attack.
He was one of at least nine people who died of storm-related causes — ranging from hypothermia to a car crash — in Virginia, Maryland and the District. Such calamities almost always accompany fierce weather, despite government warnings not to drive or overexert aging bodies.
The death toll will probably rise in coming days as medical examiners finish reviewing other cases, but as of Tuesday morning, Peoples was the oldest identified victim.
Peoples came to the District when he was about 20, but he was a Washingtonian to his core. He raised four children in Southeast Washington before helping care for five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He witnessed the riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and weathered the years of violence that gripped the city during the crack epidemic.
After 2008, he was so proud that a black man had won the White House that he adorned his home with 11-by-14-inch photographs of President Obama and the first lady. In his old age, he had few hobbies, but Peoples adored the Washington Redskins, a team founded in the same year he was born: 1932.
Peoples was magnetic in his 20s, said a nephew, Michael Campbell. He liked to dance and drink and headed to the Howard Theatre to see Fats Domino, Cab Calloway and other big stars. Sharp-jawed and mustachioed, he sported glossy shoes, wide-brim fedoras and pinstripe suits.
“He was a man of style,” said Campbell, 65.
It was during the same era that he also fell for Lena Mae Simpson, a tall woman with dark eyes and a soft smile. They married in a red-brick church in Northeast Washington on a December day in 1955: He wore a dark suit with a checkered tie, and she wore a white dress with a lace veil.
Like him, she had moved to the District from North Carolina and came from a big family (he had nine siblings; she had 11). Unlike him, she talked fast and seldom slowed down. Lena would sometimes complain, Campbell said, that her husband was too laid back.
But those differences seemed to fade in time. The couple’s focus became their children, then the next generation, then the next.
As patriarch, he reveled in his role as the grill master during day-long family gatherings. As a father, he chauffeured his youngest daughter, Betsy, to after-school academic programs before watching her grow up to earn an MBA and become senior speechwriter for then-D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). As a grandfather, he proudly showed off to his friends a photo one of the boys had taken with Redskins running back Alfred Morris. And as an uncle, he was never just that: His nieces called him Uncle Daddy.
But no one commanded Peoples’s devotion more than Lena.
He had heart surgery about two decades ago, and in the years since, her health also deteriorated. The inexorable toll of long life only brought them closer together.
“One breathed for the other,” said Betsy Adeboyejo, 45.
Lena never cared for football, but sometimes, as her husband sat in front of the TV clutching his glass of lemonade, she’d watch, too — if only to tease him by rooting for the Dallas Cowboys.
A decade ago, their family threw a party to celebrate the couple’s 50th anniversary.
They shared a vanilla cake covered with whipped frosting and, beneath a tiara atop his wife’s head, Peoples kissed her just as he did a half-century ago.
After Lena underwent surgery last year, he had become her full-time caregiver at their Fort Lincoln apartment for seniors. He drove her to their church and to visit their daughters, and he shopped for their food and ran their errands.
“He was a very doting husband,” Campbell said.
“He was basically living for her.”
Almost every morning, including his last, he cooked Lena a breakfast of grits and sausage and brewed her a cup of hot tea.
“I don’t know what I’ll do without him,” she told Betsy on Monday. “Only God knows.”
The family had intended to throw another party last month, to mark the pair’s 60th year of marriage, but the gathering had been postponed until February.
Peoples wanted to wait until his wife felt better.