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Remembering Margaret Ann (Cunningham) Luchessi

Marching to a different drummer

George Cunningham | July 2, 2006

Peggy Lucchesi was a percussionist with the San Francisco Symphony and Opera Orchestras for something on the order of 35 years. It seemed only natural for her to be a drummer, for she "marched to a different drummer" most of her life. Late in her life she returned to the sport of swimming, with great distinction, for which she is annually remembered with a trophy presentation by Pacific Masters Swimming.

Peggy was the youngest child of two high achieving parents, Helen and George Cunningham. Helen was a leader in everything she became involved in, from local charities to becoming the national president not only of her college sorority but of the National Panhellenic Congress, ruling body of all sororities. She was elected to the Berkeley City Council, one of the first women to so serve. George was an oil explorer, involved in finding a number of the world's major oil deposits. He rose to become the president of American Overseas Petroleum, a subsidiary of Standard Oil of California and Texaco.

Peggy learned to swim at an early age in a little tube in the San Lorenzo River near Santa Cruz, Calif. She became involved in competitive swimming about the time Ann Curtis was first bringing the sport to public interest. But that career was ended when a branch gave way as she was climbing a redwood tree at the family cabin. She landed on the bumper of a car parked below, injuring her back, causing her to give up sporting activities for perhaps forty years.

She graduated, Phi Beta Kappa in music, from the University of California at Berkeley, winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London. She won a ten-pound note as top scholar in her first year class, which she parlayed into a second year scholarship from her dad. Among the degrees she earned was the degree in orchestral conducting, the first woman to receive that degree in the school's long history.

She joined the San Francisco Symphony's percussion section under maestro Enrique Jorda. When the tympannist position became vacant, she seized the opportunity to audition. Her peers have said that she won the audition hands down. But that Jorda, unwilling for the audiences' attention to be drawn from him toward the pretty, amply bosomed young lady, insisted on going outside the usual labor contract to import a gentleman from the East. She never complained, heaping praise on the new man. She married Dino Lucchesi, french horn player in the symphony, and they had three talented children.

Along about late 1981 Peggy returned to swimming. She trained under Dix Ozier at the Hotel Claremont's pool in Berkeley, and enjoyed joining her brother at the regular meets held by Pacific Masters, joining up with the Tamalpais Aquatic Masters for whom her brother swam, although neither of them trained with TAM. A light-hearted soul, she would laugh and joke with her timers while making her turns, jolly up her competition, and have a wonderful time. At the Long Course Nationals in Portland, 1982, she became fast friends with a Japanese swimmer of her age. I believe they met again when the symphony was on tour in Japan, and I'm quite sure that they swam against one another at the World Masters Games in New Zealand the summer of 1984. En route to New Zealand, she visited our sister, Mary Jean Jones, at her home in Woomera, Australia. The two of them then went to the Australian Nationals, where Peggy won the gold medal as High Point in her age group. Thence to a very successful world championship meet in New Zealand.

She thoroughly enjoyed spending her weekends with me at the swim meets, they gave her a chance to relax from her hectic music schedule.

The two of us planned to go to the Long Course Nationals at Raleigh, N. C. together, but the telephone business was in the midst of a great upheaval, and it seemed more prudent for me to remain at home to protect my turf. Peggy went on to win the same race I had won some years earlier, the 200-meter breaststroke, edging out her good friend, Elfriede Rogers of Walnut Creek, who had played a major role in luring Peggy back to swimming. She had finally learned to be serious about the competition.

A few months later, at the Rinconada Masters Meet in Palo Alto, she swam the fastest 100-yard freestyle of her life, grinned from ear to ear as her time was called to her, and sank beneath the water with a massive aneurysm in her head. She never regained consciousness.

She had a sizable collection of T-Shirts from every meet she had entered, which her Tamalpais teammates sold to raise funds for a memorial trophy in her honor. The trophy has been awarded ever since, with the initial one going to Elfriede Rogers. The trophies have a small glass otter, swimming on his back, mounted on a flat plaque. The simple engraving says, "Thank you for the Joy you bring to Masters Swimming", with the honoree's name and a second small inscription, "In memory of Peggy Lucchesi". It has been presented each year to a swimmer and/or coach whose very presence in the program brings joy and happiness to the rest of us, in the spirit of Peggy Lucchesi.

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