The day Eduardo Peñalver was named the first Latino dean of Cornell Law School this month, one of his brothers called their mother, Meg.
“There he goes, raising the bar again,” Josiah Peñalver said of his older brother.
Raising the bar on achievement in the Peñalver family of Puyallup takes some doing, because each of Meg and Ovidio’s five children seems extraordinarily gifted and driven.
It would be like trying to get a word in at a family dinner.
“People invited to dinner with us either jump right in or we never see them again,” daughter Laura Peñalver-Vargas said. “We’re loud, we challenge each other, and our arguments are so intense the kids stay at the table just to watch.”
Mother Meg was born on a Fife dairy farm run by her Swiss immigrant parents. Father Ovidio is Cuban, fled his country after the Bay of Pigs incident, and spent five years in a New York seminary as a Franciscan friar.
They met in Los Angeles after he’d left the seminary to teach. She was a nurse in L.A. The son of a Cuban physician, Ovidio proposed to Meg after they’d seen the movie “Camelot.”
Ovidio went to medical school and became a pediatrician, took his residency in Seattle, and the couple wound up in Puyallup 34 years ago.
They were never, their children say, your average family.
“We had a weird family,” son Mario said. “Our parents wouldn’t order Domino’s Pizza because at the time its owner was so conservative. We’d go to school pizza parties, but they’d order Domino’s, so we’d always have to make our own at home and carry it over to school.
“My parents had values that could set them apart, so we were not conformists.”
Devout Catholics, the Peñalvers had occasional issues with the church. In eighth grade, Laura wrote a term paper that was a scathing review of what she saw as sexism in the clergy.
“Her teacher hated it, wrote all over it,” Meg said. “Laura and I were at a conference in Seattle, and (feminist) Rosemary Ruether was speaking. I took Laura’s paper up and asked her to look at it.
“She did and signed it, ‘Your teacher is seriously disturbed.’”
“It was empowering and the kind of thing my mother did all our lives,” Laura said. “She’s not always touchy-feely, but she’d do anything for us.”
The parental pact Meg and Ovidio made early was simple: Let their children develop their interests, pursue their dreams — whatever they were.
n Laura, 43, is the mother of four and in May will take her boards to become a psychologist. She’ll practice in Puyallup.
n Eduardo, 41, attended Cornell, became an attorney, clerked for the U.S. Supreme Court, taught at the University of Chicago Law School and has written two books. Now he’s the dean at Cornell.
n Josiah, 34, is a third-generation physician, a pediatric cardiologist practicing in Tacoma and on staff with Children’s Hospital in Seattle.
n Mario, 33, teaches at Tacoma’s Mason Middle School. An actor, director and artist, he established a Puyallup theater group, Astran, that has performed summer musicals for the past 10 years.
n Andre, 30, graduated from Harvard Law School, married a physician and lives in Yakima, where his wife is performing her residency.
“My parents were not people who sat you down and gave advice,” Eduardo said. “It was more a consistent orientation toward service. The one lesson I learned: Don’t make decisions based on what will make you the most money or most glory.
“Make them based on where you can have the biggest impact to make the world a better place.”
Laura recalls growing up in a home where opera singers and poets might join the family for dinner.
“We were exposed to politics, art, culture, all within our own home,” she said. “As a family, we looked to each other for strength and love and values.”
Those values led to some tough choices for the Peñalver children.
“Josiah, Mario and Andre were all Eagle Scouts,” said Ovidio, now 74. “When the Boy Scouts barred homosexuals, all three renounced their rank and returned their badges.”
Though each sibling speaks of the others with love, once they’re together under one roof, affection can be deafening.
“Mario could always drive me crazy, and he still does,” joked Josiah. “I love teasing Eduardo, because when you get him mad he has these two veins on his forehead that stick out.”
Asked whether his family was proud of him for becoming the first Latino dean of an Ivy League Law school, Eduardo laughed.
“We’re Catholic, we avoid the sin of pride,” he said. “I know they love me, and I know they’re happy for me. They’re all waiting, though, for the next time I do something stupid so they can jump me. It won’t take long.”
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638