Singer Pegi Young, who co-founded the Bridge School and its long-running benefit concert with her ex-husband Neil Young, died New Year’s Day after a one-year battle with cancer. She was 66.
“… Pegi Young — mother, grandmother, sister, auntie, musician, activist and co-founder of the Bridge School — passed away surrounded by her friends and family in her native California,” confirmed a post on Pegi Young’s official Instagram on Wednesday, Jan. 3, featuring a photo of the singer playing a guitar.
Neil Young had bought a ranch off Bear Gulch Road in the hills west of Woodside. Pegi, who grew up in San Mateo and was working at a waitress at Alex’s Mountain House, a restaurant in the Skyline section of Woodside, when her future husband walked in. Those first encounters in Alex’s (now the Mountain House), plus Neil’s infatuation and their ensuing life together was the subject of “Unknown Legend,” the first track on his platinum 1992 acoustic album “Harvest Moon.”
“She used to work in a diner/ Never saw a woman look finer/ I used to order just to watch her float across the floor,” he sings in the opening stanza of the song.
They were eventually married and had two children, first a son, Ben, born with cerebral palsy, and a daughter, Amber Jean. Neil already had a son, Zeke, also diagnosed with cerebral palsy, from an earlier relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress. Raising two children with disabilities gave Pegi her life’s work. She co-founded the Bridge School, a private facility for youth with severe speech and physical impairments.
To fund it, she and her husband threw the annual Bridge School Benefit Concert, which came to an end in 2017 after more than three decades at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View. Neil was able to lure the top acts in rock and pop to come play acoustic sets at the all-day concert, from Paul McCartney to Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie to Don Henley, Pearl Jam to Metallica.
“My favorite moments are seeing the artists develop a rapport with the kids,” she told The Chronicle in 2011. “Everybody gets a close and personal look at what this whole thing is about. They are the real stars of the show. The artists really get that. It’s a life-altering experience.”
The hallmark of the concert was to put the Bridge School students onstage in their wheelchairs. During Neil’s set, Pegi would come out to harmonize on “Comes a Time.” She began to tour with Neil and started working on her own material in the studio at the ranch. She slowly developed her own act, known as Pegi Young and the Survivors, and released several albums. The band performed in the Bay Area, including at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, as well as touring internationally.
In addition to being a singer, Pegi was a photographer and had just started working on a memoir about her life with Neil. When couple divorced in 2014, Pegi stayed at the ranch on the Peninsula, while Neil moved on with his current wife, actress Daryl Hannah.
“Pegi was a woman who had so many dreams come true,” said Bill Bentley, a friend and former publicist for Pegi Young and the Survivors. “When you are an artist, your biggest dream is to share your own creativity. It was a beautiful thing to watch her do that.”
Margaret Mary Morton was born Dec. 1, 1952, at Mills Hospital in San Mateo, where she grew up. Her parents, Tom Morton and Margaret Foley, also were born and raised in San Mateo. They graduated from Stanford University and returned to their hometown to raise the family. Margaret was the middle of six siblings and was immediately nicknamed Peggy, which she later shortened to Pegi.
At Aragon High School, Pegi started writing poetry and playing guitar, but only hidden away in her own bedroom. After graduating in 1971, she left home and became an adventurer, hitchhiking cross-country and back across Canada, sometimes with a friend and sometimes alone.
She lived in Half Moon Bay and worked at a veterinary hospital before moving further inland to the Sky Londa area where she lived in a tepee for a time, while working day jobs, writing poetry and journal entries.
“She was a big thinker,” said her younger brother, Paul Morton, of Dana Point. “I always thought of her as the emblem of the free spirit of her time. She thought globally before it was cool, and she wrote a lot of that down.”
Her future intersection with Neil started when he was flying from a recording session in San Francisco home to Los Angeles. The plane passed over a cattle ranch in the unincorporated western hills of San Mateo County. Neil had his manager trace the ranch to its owners, Robert J. Lewis and George Long, who were horsemen and members of the Mounted Patrol of San Mateo County, which often used the Lazy Double L, as it was called, for overnight rides.
When Neil closed the deal to purchase the Lazy Double L, around 1970, he drove his vintage hearse down to Lewis’ home in Portola Valley and played a few songs on the piano in celebration. He changed the name to Broken Arrow Ranch and took the 700-acre spread as is, cattle and Willys Jeep included. So too, was the caretaker, a rugged old cowboy named Louie. He became the subject of the song “Old Man.”
When Pegi met Neil at Alex’s, she kept it quiet from the family until their wedding in 1976 on a hillside in Malibu Canyon. Only then did she bring him home to meet the family in San Mateo.
“My mom said to me, ‘Hey your sister is coming home, and I think she married Neil Diamond,” recalled Morton. “I said, ‘That doesn’t sound right.’”
Pegi and Neil Young’s first child, Ben, was born in 1978, and within months it was clear he had cerebral palsy. The special education options at that time were limited, so they started their own.
In 1986, they founded the Bridge School.
“It wasn’t like she had an idea and turned it over to other people,” Bentley said. “She did it. She helped build it.”
They called it the Bridge School because it would bridge the children to the mainstream.
“It was a new brand of special education,” Morton said. “These kids are nonverbal, but they are very smart and the curriculum was about finding a way to let information get in and let their thoughts get out.”
The Bridge School started in a surplus classroom at Woodside Elementary School. After a few moves, the Bridge School now has its own building in Hillsborough, which houses 14 students and 29 staff members. It is also a worldwide movement, with its program applied at other schools across the country. Residencies bring in teachers from Europe and South America.
One crucial element in the school’s success was the Bridge School Benefit Concert, started in October 1986. In the 30 subsequent seasons of the Bridge School, the concert would raise millions for the school. It was so successful that a second day was added. At the beginning of each day’s program, Pegi would come onstage to welcome the audience.
She had sung backup in her husband’s rockabilly band the Shocking Pinks but, as always, kept that information quiet. Her own siblings had no idea she was even a singer until they saw her on TV, as one of the backup singers on the Academy Award telecast, when Neil’s song “Philadelphia” was nominated for the movie of that same name, in 1993.
“I remember watching it and saying, ‘That backup singer looks so much like Pegi it is amazing,’ ” Morton said. Turns out it was.
Pegi’s introductions at the Bridge School Benefit led to her performing her own song or two during the benefit, and finally fronting Pegi Young and the Survivors. With all those notebooks full of pent-up lyrics, Pegi entered a phase of productivity to rival her husband’s.
“She used to say, ‘I had a lot of stored-up material. I just didn’t know if any of it was going to be any good,’” Morton said.
In all there were five albums, capped by “Raw,” which covers the painful breakup of her 36-year marriage with Neil, in 2015. While living apart, they put on one final Bridge School Benefit Concert in 2016.
“Pegi was such a pleasure to play with because she put her whole self and soul into everything she did,” said legendary songwriter and organist Spooner Oldham, during a recording break at Muscle Shoals. “Once we got rolling with a song, she kept going until it got to be as good as it could get. She had waited a while in her life to start writing and playing her own music, and maybe that’s why it meant so much to her.”
Though she never attended college, Pegi was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by San Francisco State University, as was Neil in 2006.
Neil moved onto his 115-foot yacht moored in Southern California, while Pegi stayed at the ranch, where she lived with their son Ben, who runs an organic egg business, utilizing the chickens on the ranch. Two months ago she became a grandmother for the second time.
“She came to accept and embrace life as it was and had great plans,” Morton said.
One year ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. She had surgery and chemotherapy, and in September she was declared to be cancer-free. But it returned in October, and she fought the cancer again before succumbing to complications.
She left Broken Arrow Ranch for the last time shortly before Christmas.
“She was fretting about having gotten everybody a Christmas present, including a dozen nieces and nephews,” Morton said. “That was Pegi, 100 percent.”
Pegi is survived by her two children with Neil, Ben and Amber; stepson, Zeke; five siblings; and two step-siblings. A celebration of her life is pending.
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Instagram: sfchronicle_art