Big Sister, Big Heart

updated 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN PEGGY SAY CAME HOME FROM work one day early this month she found a barefoot man at her patio picnic table, sipping a Bud and leafing through the Washington Post. He grinned and gave her a hug.

"This is Terry Anderson," she giggled to a visitor. "Peggy Say's little brother."

In Cookeville, Tenn., where Say, 53, lives with her husband, David, Anderson is a name fading from the news. Terry is the Associated Press correspondent who was kidnapped in Beirut in 1985 and held for 2,455 days, longer than any other U.S. hostage in the Middle East. But his sister is a respected neighbor who has got her life back on track after her exhausting six-year campaign to win Terry's release, during which she pleaded for help from everyone from President Reagan to Yasir Arafat and Mother Teresa. Now she has turned her energies to counseling battered women. Terry, 46, is visiting from his home in Yonkers, N.Y., to be a speaker at a conference Peggy has organized for the Upper Cumberland Alliance Against Domestic Violence.

Neither Peggy nor Terry can remember if it has been one or two years since they last saw each other. That is significant, since it means they're not counting. Peggy says she still feels "devastated" by the media frenzy that surrounded her 1992 article in Redbook about her chilly relationship with her brother after his return from Beirut. In the article, Peggy revealed that she had at first felt hurt by Terry's aloofness but later realized that they both had to get on with their lives. Yet the prerelease publicity focused on what Say felt was merely a temporary rift. "The media made it a scandal," she says, "and there was nothing I could do."

Anderson admits that he and his sister "had some adjustments to make and expectations that were different. I don't know a single hostage whose return was smooth." Anderson says he and Peggy have put their problems behind them—not for the first time. Growing up in Batavia, N.Y., they were two of six children of Glenn Anderson, a truck driver, and his wife, Lily, a waitress—both alcoholics. Peggy left home at 17 to get married and went through two marriages in 15 years, the second an abusive one. Terry, meanwhile, became the first in the family to graduate from high school and, later, from Iowa State University. "As Terry's star was rising," Peggy once wrote, "I stumbled along."

But in her third husband, building contractor David Say, Peggy says she found a man "who made me strong enough to stand on my own." She enrolled in Florida's Daytona Beach Community College at 42 to earn a degree in social work, but took a break from her studies during Terry's captivity and David's recovery from a shattered ankle suffered in a construction accident and a subsequent near-fatal infection. Just before finishing her degree this year, Peggy saw a want ad for a counselor's position at a local shelter for battered women. "I said, 'There's my job,' " she recalls. "I had never thought of using the experience of being battered until that moment. I thought, 'I know about that. I can help.' "

Now, as her scrapbooks chronicling her campaign to free her brother grow dusty in a closet, Peggy spends 30 "intense" hours a week advising abused women. Sometimes she helps them find employment or housing, but she always emphasizes that they must take charge of their own lives. "Peggy has a special patience and wisdom that no amount of education can give you," says shelter director Tammy Clavenger.

In her new job, Peggy feels she is getting as much as she gives. "The final healing takes place when you're able to take that very ugly experience and turn it around to help somebody else," she says. "You know how wonderful it is to be healthy, and you want that for other people."

Her little brother Terry knows from his own bitter experience as a captive that when Peggy Say decides to help, she doesn't do it halfway. "She's very strong and determined, and she made a helluva lot of people pay attention," he says with pride. "She's never been ordinary."

PETER MEYER in Cookeville

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