Though Peter LaReau was a bodybuilding champ who held titles like Mr. USA, Mr. America and Mr. Universe in the 1990s, for the last 28 years he was simply his wife’s whole world.
“Peter never said ‘no’ to me,” Peter’s wife Lisa Verderame LaReau, 51, said. “Long as I was happy, Peter didn’t care about anything else.”
The Travelers Rest residents met in 1989 and then promptly traveled the world for Peter’s career. They lived in a handful of different states and countries, including Alaska, Massachusetts, Arizona, Italy, Belgium and England, until his health deteriorated rather quickly. LaReau inherited a heart condition and doctors diagnosed him with cardiomyopathy in his 30s, then giving him only seven years to live, Lisa said.
“After he couldn’t compete, he lived in the gym,” said Suzanne Verderame Lockee, Lisa’s younger sister. “He just wasn’t the same anymore.”
Strapped for cash but never without open hearts, the two did what they could for other people whenever the opportunity or need arose. Lisa’s passion for animal rescue blossomed after they moved to Anderson in 2007 to be closer to Lisa’s family, and the couple became the first foster family for Anderson County P.A.W.S.
He was a big guy, obviously, but his spirit was gentle. He was always willing to help somebody else – that was just part of his spirit.”
They’d often take in dogs and cats even if they didn’t have the room, and Peter once spent months sleeping in an empty condo to watch over an aggressive pit-boxer mix while trying to find her a home. They became involved with Freedom Fences, an animal rescue foundation, in 2012 and have been dedicated volunteers for the past five years.
While dog-sitting in Seneca on March 11, Peter called his wife around 9:45 p.m. to say goodnight. Lisa can’t remember if she said “I love you,” and she had no idea it would be the last time she’d hear her husband’s voice.
She called and texted him 42 times the next day before finally getting their shared car back from the mechanic and heading out to Seneca, slightly perturbed that he was ignoring her. She arrived around 7 p.m. and could hear the dogs barking, but Peter wouldn’t come to the door.
“I had to go through the doggy door,” Lisa said, choking back a sob. She found Peter lying on the couch, eyes closed, a glass of juice resting beside him. It only took her a moment to realize he was gone.
Though she can’t recall much from that evening, she said she’s never screamed so hard for so long in her life.
Doctors deemed natural causes the reason for 54-year-old Peter’s death, presumably related to his preexisting heart condition.
The effect Peter had on the lives of others is profound, Lockee said. The Travelers Rest resident said she had to leave a note on her sister’s door in Anderson asking people to give Lisa privacy after the endless visits became unbearable.
“Even Peter’s doctor called Lisa crying after he passed,” Lockee said. “I don’t think Peter knew how much people loved him.”
Patrice Shearin set up a GoFundMe page in Peter’s honor, and it’s surpassed its $5,000 goal as of Monday afternoon. Shearin is the co-founder and executive director of Freedom Fences and said she’ll miss one of her favorite volunteers.
“He and Lisa were volunteers with us. Lisa was more active than Peter, but Peter was obviously an animal lover,” Shearin said. “I just knew that in a time like this, and with him not having life insurance, it was going to put a huge burden on Lisa.”
Shearin recalled sharing endless laughs with Peter during animal transport trips, and said his sense of humor never failed to make her smile. Though he couldn’t help physically with any of Freedom Fences’ work – mainly because his shoulders were shot after multiple surgeries and extreme bodybuilding had essentially crippled him – she said he always made an effort to contribute in any way he could.
“He was a big guy, obviously, but his spirit was gentle,” Shearin said. “He was always willing to help somebody else – that was just part of his spirit.”
On April 9 at 1 p.m., Lisa and her family are holding a celebration of life at Uptown Lounge, 301 N. McDuffie St., for those who want to stop by and pay their respects. Anyone and everyone who knew Peter is welcome to attend, she said.
Lisa said she doesn’t know what’s next – she’s lost, and just focused on getting through this period of her life. She said she’ll continue her work with Freedom Fences and possibly go back to school.
“We did what we loved. We’re supposed to be here to help people,” Lisa said. “It’s never going to be the same again. I just hope he watches over me and guides me through this.”