Remembering Sheldon Peck

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The University mourns the loss of one of Carolina’s great friends, an extraordinary benefactor and true inspiration. Sheldon Peck passed away, aged 79, in Boston on April 18, 2021 due to complications from congestive heart failure. He leaves a towering legacy in the fields of orthodontics and art history, not only for Carolina but also for the wider world in both pursuits.

Sheldon grew up in Durham, NC. After receiving his undergraduate degree and his D.D.S. from Carolina, he went on to earn further graduate degrees in orthodontics from Boston University. His extensive success in his chosen field over many decades encompassed not only practice, but also teaching, lecturing, research, professional societies, and publication. Sheldon was joined in many of these activities by his beloved brother, Harvey, until the latter’s untimely death in 1981. He and his late wife, the Finnish orthodontist Leena Kataja, whom he first met in 1973 and married shortly after their second meeting in 1985, were a formidable professional and personal team.

Sheldon was also devoted to the history of dentistry, a passion he exemplified in his gift of 163 rare books to the UNC Health Sciences Library to establish The Sheldon Peck Collection on the History of Orthodontics and Dental Medicine. Beyond that, the Pecks also established The Sheldon Peck Rare Books Fund for Orthodontics and Dental Medicine, hoping that the collection could continue to grow. The endowment thoughtfully allows for digitization of some of the rare volumes in the collection, making them available electronically to readers anywhere in the world.

“Despite an extended period of northern exile, Sheldon Peck remained a loyal and passionate son of Carolina, and his love for this place was evident over more than five decades of service and dedication to the University at Chapel Hill,” noted his close friend and former Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs Dr. Garland Hershey. “In the health sciences, his scientific publications and international scholarly presentations extended far beyond his own specialty of orthodontics to include landmark contributions to the fields of human craniofacial growth and development, physical anthropology, genetics, and the history of the health professions, all of which brought great credit to the University. As an unfailingly positive person, Shel was a warm and sustaining mentor, and his wisdom, charm, caring, and support provided an ongoing legacy of inspiration for his many devoted colleagues and students.”

The same combination of the visual acuity needed for orthodontics, a passion for research, and the philanthropic desire to share informed Sheldon’s exceptional accomplishment as a collector and connoisseur of art, notably in the field of drawings. Sheldon and Leena assembled one of the finest collections in private hands of rare Dutch and Flemish old master drawings. Their collecting was fueled by a scholarly pursuit and natural curiosity to explore how artists captured humanity and truth in their works. In 2017, they gave more than 134 masterworks to the Ackland Art Museum, at a stroke propelling the institution to the forefront of museums with collections in the field. The Ackland is now the only public university art museum with a collection of drawings by the undisputed genius of the period, Rembrandt van Rijn. Characteristically, and with great sensitivity to the needs and aspirations of the Museum, he rounded out this extraordinary act by endowing a fund to ensure the care, publication, and promotion of the Peck Collection, a named curatorship for broader activities in European and American art, as well as resources for growing the Ackland’s collection of art in the wider field.

“Since our founding gift there has never been a patron of the Ackland as loyal, generous, and visionary as Sheldon Peck,” noted the Ackland’s director, Katie Ziglar. “A man of immense humility, wit, and energy, Sheldon set the bar high. His more than 40 years on the Ackland’s National Advisory Board and his gifts to the Museum of over 36.5 million dollars epitomize his ethic of service to the institutions he loved most dearly. Nothing in my professional life compares to the exhilarating phone call I received in November 2016, when Sheldon told us of his remarkable decision to make his gifts to the Ackland as soon as possible. Within a few short months, the unimaginable had been achieved. The Ackland was transformed. The entire Museum family joins with the University in extending our deepest condolences to Sheldon and Leena’s two children, Anya and Mark, on the loss of a remarkable human being.”

Kevin M. Guskiewicz, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that “Sheldon Peck was an amazing Tar Heel and friend to our university. He and Leena inspired our students, faculty and staff with their transformative investment in our campus. Their gifts to our art museum and health sciences library are enriching the education of countless students from all across the campus, and they will for generations to come. We will miss Sheldon Peck’s generous spirit and his curiosity that encouraged a life of adventure.”