Remembering Peter: Father Says Port Native Focused on 'Co-existence, Peace, Harmony'
Peter Dougherty, 24, died on Saturday while kayaking on Lake Michigan; friends and family remember him as an all-inclusive, strong spirit who loved nature and his animal companion, Jade.
As Rocco Dougherty Sr. spoke over the phone about the tragic death of his son, Peter Dougherty — who died while kayaking on Lake Michigan on Saturday — quiet meows told their own sorrowful story in the background.
"Jade is actually talking to me right now," Rocco Sr. said, explaining the bond between Peter and his cat. Jade went everywhere with Peter, family members said, including a four-month road trip with his friend, Mike Defenbaugh, and Mike's dog, Dante.
"Peter and Jade were unseparable … and Peter went so far as to say: if Jade wasn’t welcome, he wasn’t welcome," Rocco Sr. said. "Where he went, Jade went. It was a real attachment. You have to really know and appreciate animal companionship to understand.
"When I walked into (Peter's) apartment on Saturday, I was the first one in … Jade knew right away (something had happened)," Rocco Sr. said. "You didn’t have to tell him, you could just see it in his face … and Saturday night he was … distraught. Sunday he was not … the typical Jade. There’s things he will not do anymore."
Though Jade would sometimes sport a bandana — an accessory that Peter often wore — Rocco Sr. said the cat has not allowed them to dress him with the bandana since Peter's death.
Peter died on Saturday while kayaking on Lake Michigan. Witnesses noticed Peter just 300 yards east of the lighthouse and called emergency personnel. Peter was pulled into a rescue craft and rescuers administered CPR. He was pronounced dead later that afternoon at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton. The official cause of death was drowning caused by hypothermia.
Peter's older brother, Rocco Dougherty Jr., and younger brother Augustus (Gus) Dougherty repeated their father's words in speaking about Peter's bond with Jade.
"They did absolutely everything together. The only places that Jade would not go along … was to work and when (Peter) went grocery shopping," Rocco Jr. said. "Peter would take him on hikes. It’s the only cat that I have ever seen in Port that would go for walks."
Tragedy ripples through the community
Peter's bond with his cat exemplified the way he touched others' lives, too. Friends and family described Peter as an all-around accepting person who would reach out as far as he could to help anyone in need.
"I learned more from Peter than I think I taught him," his father said. "Co-existence, peace, harmony — it's things where I know I mentioned (those ideas), but there was a point in time when he was a teenager, a young adult, where I'm going, 'Wow — who taught him that?'"
Peter was involved in the community in a variety of ways. He was an Eagle Scout and also spent some time on the Port Washington Police Reserves list. He taught karate at the MIZU School of Self-Defense at St. Mary's in Port Washington and was also a kayaking instructor for a Boy Scout camp in the summer.
Because of his wide reach, the tragic ending to his life on Saturday has affected many.
"I did not know Peter Dougherty, but he was an Eagle Scout from Troop 855 at St. Mary’s Church here in Port and many folks are feeling the loss of this fine young man," said Chad Patterson of Troop 855.
"As a parent, mentor and a Scout leader this is one of the hardest things a person can do. But as a dad and Scoutmaster I can think of a bunch of fun and happy memories of Peter, while he was in Troop 855," Scoutmaster Mark Flack wrote in an e-mail. "One that particularly sticks in my mind was the time we went to Mississippi to rebuild Camp Tiak that had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. We traveled down and were rebuilding their waterfront at the lake; all the outbuildings had been decimated.
"We had worked hard and were done with repairs and fixing them about the second day down in Mississippi. The boys were waiting on the next project, when one says, 'Let's go swimming.' At the time it was 50/60 degrees and sunny (good if you're from Wisconsin, bad if you're from Mississippi). Nevertheless, our guys jumped in with gusto and ambition — they all thought we were out of our minds — but it was fun and relaxing. Peter, as always, was ready to have fun when the work was done."
Another thing that was so great about Peter, friends and family said, was his strong stance against discrimination.
"Peter was intensely focused on peace and harmony and was very adament about speaking out against all kinds of prejudice," Rocco Sr. said. "Even a casual joke, actually would insult him — he’d leave the room."
Close friend Penny Siefkes said: "He was just open to so many people in different situations ... if he detected any barriers that other people would have against another person for whatever reason, (that) would make him uncomfortable — again it just reverts back to how peaceful of a person he was."
Tragedy ends with worst fears confirmed
Peter was truly connected with nature throughout his life, spending a lot of time outdoors hiking and camping, for instance. Kayaking was something he did to release from the stressors of every day life.
"He probably went kayaking at least three times a week," Gus said. "If he was having a bad day at work, or if he just needed some peace and quiet and calm … he went kayaking."
A certified whitewater kayaking instructor, according to his dad, Peter was an experienced paddler. That, combined with what Siefkes described as an inherent sense of preparedness, leaves those who knew him confused by Saturday's tragedy.
"I know because of how prepared (he was), he thought things out — and he’s gone kayaking in conditions like that … countless, countless, countless times — that’s why a lot of people are in shock," Siefkes said.
As law enforcement began informing family members of what had happened on Saturday, people close to Peter feared the worst but hoped their gut feelings were wrong.
Siefkes, who was in Appleton when it happened, recieved concerned voicemails from Peter's brother that left her instantly wondering what was wrong — but she definitely knew something was wrong.
Then she recieved a message from Saukville resident and friend Amy Huegerich, mentioning the news of a body pulled from Lake Michigan. Because of a conversation with Peter the night before, Siefkes knew he had plans to be on the water.
“That just devastated me, and I knew that something bad happened … and I also knew that, whatever happened, I had hope that maybe they pulled him from the water, and they were able to revive him … I know that that's what I was thinking. I was hoping that that was true," Siefkes said.
For Peter's dad, it was a parent's worst nightmare come true.
"In Saturday's tragedy … I knew that as soon as the officers told me, 'You have to go to the hospital,' I just knew," Rocco Sr. said. "I told myself, 'God, I hope I’m wrong.'"
Even if Peter had survived Saturday's incident, his father said that frightful experience wouldn't have pushed him to give up kayaking. Instead, Rocco Sr. said, he could hear Peter explaining to his father what went wrong — and how he would avoid that in the future.
His memory will live on
Through the tears shed this week in mourning Peter's death, family and friends are still able to recall happy and perhaps quirky memories of the Port Washington native.
Rocco Jr. talked sarcastically of a "very annoying game," that his two brothers would play, quoting lines from movies they both knew well — leaving Rocco Jr. clueless and anxious to figure out just what screenplay that line came from.
Siefkes talked about a roughly 16-mile hike that Peter and Defenbaugh took her on, despite the fact that she was expecting to walk just 4 or 5 miles that night. Siefkes often reminded Peter and Defenbaugh just how "fond" of a memory that was, she said.
And though the tragedy forever takes Peter away from the friends and family that love him so much, the incident has allowed Rocco Sr. to learn a couple things about his son.
For one, Peter and a friend were planning a month-long trip to Alaska that they hadn't told their parents about because they wanted to hash out all of the details before worrying their parents.
Rocco Sr. also learned that Peter, in a deep conversation with friends, had said that if he were to die in accidental way, he thought drowning would be one of the more peaceful ways to go. And if that were to happen, he'd prefer to be cremated with his ashes spread about.
So that is exactly what they will do, Rocco Sr. said. And though some people might feel they want to keep a bit of their loved one's ashes as a memento, Rocco Sr. said all of Peter's ashes will be set free.
"I, as a dad, am not going to ground Peter to his house for the rest of eternity … and I don’t need (the ashes) to remind me (of Peter)," Rocco Sr. said. "I can see him when I stand outside and watch the trees blow … I can see him when I take a walk along the lake … it's emptier, but I can still see him.
"In perspective … you don’t chose when to enter (the world), you don’t chose when to exit. There’s no stops along the way and there's no turnarounds ... the only thing you can chose to do is live the best life you can live and when it's your time the universe will line up for you," Rocco Sr. continued, adding that the universe did just that for Peter.
"I can be sure that he fought the lake to the last ounce of his energy … I don’t think he ever gave up but — it was his time and he did everything right."