Ithaca, N.Y. — Dyslexic, poor, living in a single-parent household.
Aimless, barely graduating high school, getting a job as a trucker.
And then: Cornell Law School, successful attorney, and — as of last week — Ithaca’s City Court Judge.
The story of Seth Peacock is about surpassing one’s own expectations.
It’s about taking what little one has and making something great out of it – whether saving up every tip as a waitress to get a better home, or taking nine-hour shifts driving trucks across town while tackling a full-time college education and supporting a family.
It’s about figuring it out as you go along.
A ‘life-changing’ move
Peacock grew up on the west side of Manhattan, near Lincoln Center. He lived with his mother and older sister in a cooperative housing project.
For years, Peacock’s mother saved money so they could move out of the projects, Peacock said.
To save up the $2,000 required for a down payment for a place, Peacock’s mother took two jobs. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. she would work as a secretary in a Manhattan office, and at night she served tables at a steakhouse until 10 or 11 p.m, Peacock said.
“I remember she’d come home every night with tips,” said Peacock, now 47.
“She’d have all these coins and go through them and get closer to this goal. It was a real example of setting a goal and making it happen.”
After years of saving up, Peacock’s mother finally saved up the money required for the down payment. Soon after, they left the projects for good.
“We got a moving van and literally moved across the street,” Peacock said.
“It was life-changing. I went from the projects to across the street from the projects. It didn’t seem like a big move, but it changed my life.”
Problems at school
Peacock attended elementary school at P.S. 191 Amsterdam, a public school near the southwest corner of Central Park, until 3rd grade.
But in third grade, Peacock started having problems with classmates.
His mother, who worked across the street from P.S. 191, saw him fighting with others on the playground and decided to move him to a different environment, Peacock said.
“I guess I was fighting with a kid or was not acting right,” Peacock said.
“I don’t know if this happened once or a couple of times, but the next year she pulled me out of the public school and put me in a Catholic school.”
The transfer to Sacred Heart school on the Upper West Side, Peacock said, helped straighten him out.
“The first few days I was there I saw this nun really wallop this kid,” Peacock said.
“It was definitely different, but it worked in the sense that I calmed down or acted right for a little while.”
Despite the change in environment, Peacock still struggled. He suffered with dyslexia from an early age, making it difficult for him to focus on his school work.
“I didn’t like reading a lot,” Peacock said.
And because his single mother worked all day, he didn’t get much support for his efforts in school.
“It wasn’t the normal [situation] where you come home, your parents ask, ‘Did you do your homework?” Peacock said.
“So I didn’t have anyone to get focused and monitor my schoolwork.”
These problems continued through middle school and high school.
“I graduated high school by the skin of my teeth,” Peacock said.
“I had no clue or idea how to be a productive citizen.”
CSPAN is … fascinating?
But despite the difficulties, Peacock soon found interest, even at his early age, in the work of lawyers and politicians.
In 1979, when Peacock was in middle school, the C-SPAN network launched – and it planted a little seed of curiosity in Peacock’s head.
“You know, as a kid with dyslexia, I didn’t really like reading a lot, but for some reason, and even to this day I can just watch meaningless debates and just watch people and listen to ideas,” Peacock said.
“It fascinated me what they were talking about. They seemed smart. I watched it almost every day.”
He started thinking about what these people on C-SPAN did. How did they get there? How did they learn to talk like that?
“But I wasn’t really sure where they were,” Peacock said. And so he moved on out of high school, still unsure of his future.
Keep on truckin’
After graduation, Peacock took several retail jobs, eventually getting a job driving tractor trailers for an airline company. He continued to work these jobs until he turned 25.
That’s when his mother, the only one of his parents he knew, suddenly died. It was at this point that Peacock decided he needed to return to school.
“After she passed away, it was kind of like, ‘you’re on your own,’ because I didn’t know my dad and it was just me and my sister,” Peacock said.
In 1994, he applied and entered Queens College, a public university in Flushing, Queens. Peacock entered through the Adult Collegiate Education, or ACE, program. All of the classes for the first two years were chosen for students, Peacock said, so he managed to get all his prerequisites out of the way without needing to choose a major.
At the same time, Peacock held his job driving tractor trailers for the Airborne Freight corporation, which required long days.
“I’d work from three to midnight driving, then I’d go to school from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m,” Peacock said.
“Seth would study in his truck parked on the Kennedy Airport runway during his meal break,” according to his city judge campaign website.
During that time period he met his wife, Dawne, got married, and had two children, Taylah and Melaney.
By junior year, Peacock declared a major in psychology, and in 1998 he graduated with a bachelor’s in philosophy.
‘I had never heard of Ithaca’
That was when Peacock started the process of admission into his dream law school – Duke University.
“I had my heart set on going to Duke, watching basketball games, getting a great education and dealing with nice weather,” Peacock said.
But of ten school he applied to, he was accepted to all except Duke.
Then Cornell came into his sights.
“I had never heard of Ithaca or this community at all,” Peacock said.
“Since then, I’ve fallen in love with the place. It’s big enough that you have a wide interesting set of experiences to choose from, but small enough to let you have an impact and really roll up your sleeves and get involved.”
Peacock graduated from Cornell in 2001, and he and his family moved to Texas for his first job at Gardere Wynne Sewell, a general practice corporate law firm. He worked there for two years, getting early responsibilities on hearings and smaller trials.
But he and his wife always kept Ithaca in mind.
“I did miss the east coast,” Peacock said.
“We thought, this is a great community to raise our kids in. If we ever had a chance to come back, we’d come back.”
Return to Ithaca
Peacock and his family moved back to Ithaca in 2003, after he took a position as Director of Alumni at Cornell Law School. They’ve been here ever since.
Since moving back, Peacock began his own practice, specializing in criminal justice, civil litigation, and family court issues. In 2005, he was elected to the Board of Education at the Ithaca City School District. He was made the board’s vice president in 2010.
Peacock is now reaching to make his interim position of city court judge as permanent. Although he will serve out the remainder of Judge Judith Rossiter’s term, he is a candidate for the seat, which will be voted upon in November. Two other candidates are in the race, according to Rick Wallace, one of the candidates.
Peacock’s plans for the city court include reestablishing the youth court, where juvenile offenders would be tried by a jury of other juveniles and sentenced to community service and youth jury duty.
But the future can always hold surprises, as someone who went from driving trucks to leading city court knows.
“You figure it out as you go along,” Peacock said.
“It’s about following your aspirations, no matter where you are in life.”