Al Dibs took up running after his longtime friend and former Old First Night Run/Walk Director Margaret “Peg” Ulasewicz encouraged him to try it.
Dibs hit a wall. He wanted to give up. Peg noticed his doubt. She took him aside and made sure that doubt transformed into confidence.
“She looked at me, pointed at my head and said ‘You’ve got it up here; you can do this,’ ” Dibs said.
Since then, Dibs has run in several marathons.
“She worked to make people the best they could be,” Dibs said. “She made me a better person.”
Dibs and Peg met at their alma mater St. Bonaventure University as freshmen in 1968. It began a lifelong friendship that changed Dibs’ life.
“It was just a natural relationship,” Dibs said. “We were in sync.”
Dibs is one of many Chautauquans who had the pleasure of knowing the woman who led the Old First Night Run/Walk from 1989 until her untimely death this year on May 8, after a two-year battle with cancer.
For 27 years she, along with husband former Sports Club Director Richard “Uke” Ulasewicz, grew an event that had less than 100 participants into a more-than-700-participant Chautauqua tradition.
Uke still remembers the day he and Peg met when they were both teaching in Olean.
“She walked into the faculty room, and I was starstruck,” Uke said. “I’m just glad she let me hang out with her for 45 years.”
While teaching in Olean, Peg met Chuck Bauer, who also became a lifelong friend.
Bauer remembers Peg as a kind and generous woman, with the edge and craftiness to handle any situation.
“She was the person you wanted to be in the foxhole with,” Bauer said. “She’d already have the food and water planned so you wouldn’t starve to death. She’d have a plan of escape. And the enemy better watch out because she’d be in attack mode.”
That tenacity was on full display during the OFN Run/Walk. Peg took charge of the event, meticulously planning the course and making sure everyone had a good time. Former Director of Recreation and Youth Services Jack Voelker learned quickly to let her handle things on race day.
“The race was Peg’s,” Voelker said. “It was her signature on Chautauqua.”
But even when she was intense, Peg stayed generous, thanking her volunteers with food after the race and visiting with runners just to get to know them. Many of those volunteers continued to come back year after year. Some of those runners became volunteers later. Both groups wanted to help with the event, but more so, they wanted to help Peg.
“You couldn’t help wanting to volunteer for her,” Voelker said. “She gave so much of herself to the race and the community.”
Peg did a number of activities, from coaching tennis for 26 years to playing games like Mah Jongg and sudoku with anyone who wanted to play at the Sports Club. However, her pride and joy was the OFN Run/Walk, according to Dibs.
“She took over this small little road race and turned it into a major event,” Dibs said. “People wanted the shirts. They wanted the posters. They wanted to be part of this.”
During her time as the OFN Run/Walk director, Peg and Uke added a walking option and “Around the World” event, which allowed people to still participate and get a shirt even if they couldn’t make the race.
With a great amount of support and help from Uke as her health declined, she continued to handle race duties.
Peg saw cancer as just another challenge, a challenge that wouldn’t keep her from seeing her son Michael get married last November. Her friends, including Bauer, were touched by her strong will.
“You could tell she was ill,” Bauer said. “But she made it. That’s all that mattered. That was her goal and she accomplished it.”
Peg leaves a legacy behind with years of posters, shirt designs and memories from the people who knew her best. Known for her warm smile, honesty and inviting personality, Peg’s impact, not just on the race, but on the people whose lives she touched, lives on.
Dibs will remember Peg as his best friend and as a kind person who changed his life.
Bauer will remember painting and reading with her on Sundays, something he misses greatly.
Uke will remember her as the incredible woman he loved, an intelligent woman who wore her heart on her sleeve and showed compassion to everyone.
As for the event she handled for almost half her life, friends like Bauer know she’ll still be watching the race she loved.
“She’s in heaven looking down on us,” Bauer said. “She’ll make sure those people run fast Saturday.”