IRVINE, Calif. — Suzanne Toll Peltason died Saturday (April 3, 2021) in Irvine, Calif., where she was a beloved longtime resident of University Hills and the UC Irvine community.
She was the widow of Jack Peltason, a chancellor emeritus of UC Irvine and president emeritus of the University of California.
Suzanne Emily Toll was born on July 29, 1925, in Santa Barbara, Calif., where her father, Alfred Toll, a Missouri native, had come to try his fortune after he lost his first wife and left a family lumber business behind. His second wife also died tragically young, and Suzanne lost her mother at 14 months and returned with her father and two siblings to the Midwest.
Soon after, she was taken from her father, who had begun a long decline into alcoholism, and then was raised by a changing cast of aunts, grandparents and foster homes, from Missouri to Denver to North Carolina to New Jersey.
Although she remembered those aunts with great fondness and respect, she also remembered many periods of loneliness and once remarked offhandedly that she couldn’t remember having been hugged or held as a child.
She arrived at the University of Missouri in 1944, where she met Jack Walter Peltason, who was on his way to being a graduate student in political science at Princeton University. They married in 1946, living first in Princeton, then going to Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and after that to the University of Illinois, the first of two great state universities that defined their married lives.
Jack was first a professor and dean at Illinois, then the vice-chancellor for Academic Affairs at UC Irvine starting in 1964, a year before the doors were opened to students. In 1967, he returned to the University of Illinois to become the first chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus, and then went to Washington, D.C., as the president of the American Council on Education, finally returning for good to California, becoming the second chancellor of UC Irvine, and, before his retirement in 1995, the president of the University of California.
Suzie, as she was known to all, was his full partner in each of those jobs, defining academic first ladyhood in her own special manner, a manner marked by warm hospitality, a total lack of pretension, and kindness and consideration for all. She was beloved in each of those communities and always a special favorite, not just of fellow administrators and spouses, but of support staff, assistants, tradespeople and cleaning crews, anyone who had a chance to be the object of her particular appreciation and attention.
Her three children were the beneficiaries of a miraculous alchemy by which she converted the deficits of her own childhood into the affirming and unconditional love they all so treasured and relied on. And that she showered as well on the grandchildren and great-grandchildren by whom she was visited and adored. She could be tough and tart and wonderfully witty in the process, but she most often turned the toughness on herself and was generous and affirming to those around her.
Although the pandemic separated her unkindly from her children, timely vaccinations permitted them to be with her at the end of her life. It was a hard and sometimes very painful last phase, but she was surrounded at the end by children and grandchildren, and she died peacefully.
She was preceded in death by her husband, Jack, who died in 2015.
She is survived by three children, Nancy Elliott of Bakersfield, Calif., and Evanston, Tim Peltason of Wellesley, Mass., and Jill Redding of Lorton, Va.; seven grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren. No account of her final years would be complete without mentioning the many exceptional and loyal caregivers who attended her, especially Janina Alvarado and Stephen Ticsay.
Charitable donations in her memory may be made to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research or to Feeding America.
A celebration of her life will be held some time in the fall.