Pete Peterson is dead.

That likely means little to you. Truthfully, it doesn’t mean that much to me, at least not on a level that you would expect from such an announcement.  That’s not Pete’s fault.  I’d say it’s mine.

Pete was a fixture in this area.  I saw him a lot.  I knew who he was.  He was the man I saw hitchhiking constantly, a big, heavy guy with a bald head and a scraggly beard, wearing a gray, zip-up sweatshirt.  He was the man at the library, sitting in the chair in the fantasy/science fiction nook, reading with his face inches from the text.  Sometimes I would disturb him when my pursuit of Terry Pratchett novels brought me too close and he would get up, annoyed, and limp off.  He was the man wandering through town, always appearing to frown.  He seemed grumpy and uncommunicative.  He had clear disabilities.  I never picked him up.  I never spoke to him.  I never knew anything about him but the external.

But when a news headline a year ago told me a man named Pete Peterson was missing, I knew exactly who he was.  Everyone knew who he was.  That was Pete’s secret.  That’s the strength of a small town.  That’s what we all hoped would save him.

The librarians knew who he was.  As I would learn, over the year that he was missing, they were his watchers.  They helped him pay bills; they talked and joked with him; they gave him a home away from home.  When he went missing, they sounded the alarm, put up flyers, and placed a candle in his reading nook.

The people in his town knew who he was.  I learned that they were his safety net.  They drove him to appointments, made him meals, sat and talked with him as he ate peanut butter and cheese sandwiches in a local cafe.  When he went missing, they put up a Facebook page first in hope and then in memory, spread the word via YouTube, and lit candles for him.

The residents of the surrounding area knew who he was.  They, I learned, were more generous than I was.  They picked him up when he was hitchhiking, took him to bus stations and bookstores, and asked him questions about his life.  When he went missing, they formed search parties and combed the region repeatedly, on the thinnest of clues, even after months had gone by.  Even after just about any reasonable person knew he wouldn’t be found alive.

Then, one day, he was found.  Tragically, the reasonable people were right.

Pete was born in a different time, a time when quirky kids weren’t tracked away from others.  I’m sure it was clear early on that Pete had disabilities, but he never formally got the autism label that now seems likely.  He went to the small local school with everybody else.   Many of the people who were looking for him had known him for years, some since childhood.  They all knew he wasn’t fully capable of taking care of himself.

Luckily for him, he didn’t need to.  Luckily, he had a lot of people who were looking out for him.  Luckily, there are better people than me out there, people who take the time to get to know those in their midst, who get to know their needs, and then go out of their way to meet those needs.  Because that’s what good neighbors do.

There will be a vigil tonight for Pete at 7 p.m.  I won’t be able to make it; that’s prime going-to-bed time at my house.  I don’t know if I would go even if  I could; I would feel awkward. I care, of course I care, but this isn’t my grief to carry around.  I hope it is a healing experience for everyone who has worried, searched, and hoped for a year.

I will try to remember, in the midst of the chaos that is my evening, to light a candle for Pete in remembrance of his life. But I also want to light it in thanks to all of those who took the time to pick him up, make his dinner, pay his bills, loan him books, and watch out for him.  They took good care of him for 61 years.

I’d say that’s a damn fine run.