YAKIMA, Wash. — As one longtime friend said, “I can’t think of anyone who loved children more.”
Helen Peterson, teacher, principal, administrator and at one time the highest ranking woman in the Yakima School District, died Monday.
She was 93.
“She impacted thousands and thousands of lives here,” said Jane Gutting, former superintendent of Educational Service District 105.
“Petey,” as she was known at school, arrived in Yakima in 1949 to teach fifth grade after growing up on an Iowa corn farm. She’d begun teaching junior high school at age 19 after only two years of college (she went on to obtain bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northern Colorado State University over 17 summers of study) and was a principal by age 23. After 42 years in education, 32 of those in Yakima, she retired in 1981.
First, as director of elementary education for the school district, then as head of curriculum and instruction, she pioneered early education programs and was instrumental in creating the Home Base program, child-rearing instruction for young parents; backyard centers, home-style preschools; the district’s human sexuality program and the school breakfast program.
She was most proud of her lead role in launching Head Start in Yakima, Gutting said. Peterson wrote the grant that successfully garnered funds when the first round of national Head Start programs were established in the mid-1960s. “She was just one big achievement,” said Peg Stapleton, a Yakima teacher and counselor for more than 30 years.
In 1950 Stapleton was assigned as Peterson’s student teacher in a fifth-grade class at Hoover Elementary School. “But Helen didn’t want a student teacher,” so Stapleton had to win her over. They went on to share holidays, birthdays, daily visits and conversations until Peterson’s death at Summitview Healthcare Center.
Peterson knew what it was like to forge her way alone as a career woman, Stapleton said. After Peterson’s mother died when she was 16, the teen took on the task of raising her siblings, even taking her younger sister off to college with her.
Although Peterson didn’t have children of her own, her life revolved around them, and she never failed to delight at stories about preschoolers, friends said.
Terry Martin, a Central Washington University English professor whose books of poetry were favorites of Peterson’s, became a close friend of her fan. “Making a difference in the lives of children, that was her beacon,” said Terry Martin, a Central Washington University English professor.
But it wasn’t just children. Martin credited Peterson with reaching out to different generations. “A real strength I learned from her was to invite younger people into my life and have friends of all ages.”
Peterson received honors from the YWCA, Camp Fire and, in 1981, was named the Yakima Herald-Republic’s first Person of the Year.
She once said, “I think people who work with children are very special and appreciate each other.”
That was true with her and close friend Nedra Callard, another early childhood education advocate before her death in 2005.
Artist Delma Tayer often spent vacations together with them and a coterie of other friends. “We had so much fun. Helen was remarkable, very bright and we laughed our heads off,” said Tayer, who taught for many years at Yakima Valley Community College. “Helen was a woman who really knew who she was, and not everyone has that kind of knowledge.”
Greta Bryan, who met Peterson in 1971, worked with her on several educational projects. “She had definite opinions and never hesitated to speak her mind. She also never hesitated to tell me she loved me and wrote me the dearest notes. She was such a good friend.”
It wasn’t all classroom and writing grants for Peterson, though.
She enjoyed hiking in the Cascades, shooting photographs, tending her beloved roses and eating Bing cherries from Johnson Orchards.
But she always took her profession seriously and considered helping younger educators part of her mission. Gutting was one of those who sought Peterson’s advice. “She guided me through getting to know Yakima; she was a great mentor.”
Nor did Peterson shy from difficult assignments. “Her ability really was bringing diverse people together and engaging them in a task,” Gutting recalled. “She understood the value of community.”
Stapleton concurred. “Helen was an instrumentalist. She didn’t play any music, but she was always absolutely sharp and knew how to get things done.”
Helen Peterson was born in Woodbine, Iowa, on April 17, 1919. She is survived by nephew Douglas Peterson of Alexandria, Va., and three nieces, Janis Peterson of San Rafael, Calif., Elaine Drake of Lake San Marcos, Calif., and Linda Walker of Jefferson, Iowa. No services are planned at this time. Keith and Keith Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.