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Disabilities advocate forerunner of social change

| Sunday, June 14, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Workers at the Association for Retarded Citizens made an unannounced visit in 1973 to the Polk State School and Hospital, a state-run institution for the mentally disabled.

Conditions were deplorable, said Bob Nelkin, who worked at ARC's Allegheny County chapter. He told his boss, Chuck Peters, who vowed to take the matter to the governor and other state officials.

Mr. Peters “saw what was wrong and started to make it right,” Nelkin said. “If you fast forward 50 years, there is great social change. Chuck deserves significant credit for that social change.”

Charles “Chuck” Peters Sr. of the South Side died Saturday, June 13, 2015. He was 81.

Mr. Peters was taken to UPMC Montefiore in Oakland last week after experiencing stomach pain. He fell and hit his head while in the hospital, Nelkin said. His death was ruled an accident, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office.

At the Polk facility in Venango County, some residents were confined to cages about 5 feet square and 5 feet high, court documents said. Helene Wohlgemuth, the state's secretary of public welfare, later fired the facility's superintendent after conducting her own inspection.

Mr. Peters began his career as a special education teacher in Beaver County. He became executive director of ARC's local chapter, now known as ACHIEVA, in 1969.

He later led Allegheny County's mental health, mental retardation, drug and alcohol, homeless and hunger programs.

Mr. Peters was an “outspoken champion for people with disabilities,” said Nelkin, now president of the United Way of Allegheny County.

“Chuck was a great leader in the community, and he will be missed by a lot of people,” Nelkin said.

Mr. Peters was born Aug. 23, 1933, in Wellsville, Ohio, to Clarence H. Peters and Mary Grace Sullivan.

He attended Thiel College in Greenville in Mercer County, and later served in the Marine Corps, his younger son, Stewart Peters, said.

He loved to cook and entertain. He was a voracious reader and enjoyed sailing, his son said.

“He would have a party at a drop of a hat,” he said. “He liked to have a good time.”

Mr. Peters is survived by his sons, Charles “Chip” Peters Jr. of Export and Stewart Peters of Allison Park; his daughter, Anne Elizabeth “Penny” Hagerty of Winchester, Va.; and five grandchildren.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Georgina Peters, and brother, Clarence Peters.

Visitation is from 3 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in John J. Gmiter Funeral Home, 119 S. 15th St. on the South Side. Funeral services will follow at 6 p.m.

Tony Raap is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7827 or traap@tribweb.com.

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