May 2, 2024

Sharecropper’s son plows way to fame and fortune


           America was built by defying the odds. If you are looking for a modern-day example, let me take you back to 1941. We’ll start with a birth in a sharecropper’s shack on the banks of Alligator Creek, in the backwaters of Baker County, Georgia.

            You could count on one hand the parents’ years of formal education. And before the child left home, the family had lived in 10 different tenant houses, with daddy always plowing another man’s mule.

            Poverty, illiteracy, bigotry and the absence of hope crushed the spirits of most children of sharecroppers. The odds were worse under Karl’s leaky, rusted-tin roofs. With diamondback-like fangs, his father’s temper struck without warning. Employing calloused hands and a cold-as-well-water heart, Cecil beat his second son, denying paternity. His caustic words stung as much as his farm-hardened fists.

            Most children would have crumpled, but his mother was the polar opposite of Cecil. He was filled with anger. Elsie was steeped in love. She braved beatings, too, but she never stopped whispering words of encouragement to Karl and his three siblings.

             In the mid-1950s, the world was watching Elvis swivel his hips, but two men—Bill Tom Reeves and Joe Vines—were watching Cecil and Elsie’s son. What they saw was something Karl hadn’t seen yet—his academic potential.

            Vines, Baker County High School’s principal, teamed with Reeves, a math teacher, to challenge Karl. The mentors encouraged him to hitch up his brainpower. Karl’s mediocre grades skyrocketed. Before long, the student was teaching the math class. College was mentioned, but Karl balked. College required money. He had none.

            Joe Vines, my mother’s oldest brother, was an optimist. He drove Karl to Statesboro to tour Georgia Teachers College. Enthusiasm bubbled in the 18-year-old, but he was still broke. Uncle Joe had a plan. On the way back home, he detoured to Leary to visit his friend Bill Sheppard,

the Ford dealer.

             The businessman extended a handshake loan of $532 to underwrite Karl’s first two quarters. Scholarships and part-time jobs paid for the balance of a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s and then a doctorate.

            Now it’s 2024.

            I’ve read—again—Dr. Karl Peace’s Paid in Full. His autobiography subtitle could have been “Defying the Odds.”

            Dr. Peace doesn’t live in the other man’s house on Alligator Creek anymore. He purchased that farm and built his own dwelling there. The mules are gone, but there’s a stable of 40-plus vintage automobiles.

            Most days, though, Dr. Peace is in Statesboro, where he is a part-time faculty member of his alma mater, Georgia Southern University (GSU.) He was named its Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Cancer Scholar. But sandwiched between two professorial careers is an astounding rise to prominence in the pharmaceutical industry.

            Big names such as A.H. Robins, SmithKline and Warner Lambert/Parke-Davis sought the services of Dr. Karl Peace, world-class problem-solver. Eventually, he founded his own research company that rewarded him with unimaginable wealth, considering his hardscrabble upbringing.

            Dr. Peace’s GSU scholarships pay tribute to Bill Tom Reeves and Joe Vines. But his philanthropy doesn’t stop there. More than 20 scholarships have been funded. To honor his late wife, he donated $2.5 million to create the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at GSU, the first school of public health in the University System of Georgia.

            What the biopharmaceutical statistician has done with his checkbook is beyond calculation. But what he has accomplished with his life over the past 83 years is even more impressive.

            Dr. Karl Peace defied the odds.

            And won.