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Obituary for Eileen Peterson

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Aug. 22nd, 2008 | 12:59 am
posted by: heather_dusk in eileenpeterson

My mother's obituary is now online (page 5 of the PDF file; please note that there's a typo in the name of her father, which should read Ronald). An HTML version of the obituary appears below. Note that the time for the September 6 service has now been set for one p.m.

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Greenbelt community activist Eileen Peterson died Monday, July 21, at Doctors Community Hospital in Lanham due to complications following back surgery. She was 71.

Mrs. Peterson was best known for her community service, which resulted in the rescue and founding of a number of Greenbelt cultural institutions.

In 1983, she and Barbara Simon co-founded the Friends of the Greenbelt Library to provide support for the local public library. "I was the spokesperson, but Eileen was the brains," says Simon, who reports that Mrs. Peterson brought knowledge of politics to the job, as a result of earlier volunteer work for the Democratic Party.

This knowledge became important in February 1995, when Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry threatened to shut down Greenbelt Library and five other country libraries for budget reasons. Mrs. Peterson organized a protest march, spearheaded a petition drive that collected over 37,000 signatures, and networked with people at other county libraries. In time, the libraries' budget was saved and Mrs. Peterson helped to form a new organization, Friends of the Prince George's County Libraries. Mrs. Peterson also co-founded Greenbelt Library's bookstore. A library supervisor commented in 1997 that Mrs. Peterson was "our resident PR person and community goodwill ambassador. Eileen is the consummate advocate for libraries and library staff" in Prince George's County.

Mrs. Peterson was active in other arts institutions as well. Throughout the 1990s, she helped in the fight to save Old Greenbelt Theatre, an Art Deco movie theater that had been built as part of Greenbelt's original 1937 community. She was a founding board member of the Greenbelt Foundation for the Arts. She began a yearly Arts Festival that brought craftsfolk to the city's Roosevelt Center. She served on the city's Arts Advisory Board, was a founding member of the Greenbelt Arts Center, and was a volunteer for the Friends of the New Deal Cafe Arts (FONDCA).

She also volunteered for the after-school art program of the Greenbelt Association for the Visual Arts. Many of Mrs. Peterson's community service projects over the years involved children's education, a subject that she showed interest in at an early age.

Early Years

Born as Eileen Jean Lester in Rochester, New York, on April 23, 1937, Mrs. Peterson was the daughter of Ronald Earle Lester and Josephine Marie Cristantiello Lester. She spent much of her childhood living amidst her mother's relatives in the Italian-American neighborhood in Rochester.

"The oldest of four, I have always been a caregiver," she wrote a few years before her death. Because of family difficulties caused by her parents' divorce, she found herself in the position of often taking care of her younger brothers and sister.

She later moved to her father's home in Los Angeles. She graduated in 1955 from Lynwood Academy in California, took a year off to earn money for college, and then entered Walla Walla College in Washington State.

She had originally planned to study to become a kindergarten teacher, but in college she showed a literary bent, serving as editor of the student literary magazine and feature editor of the student newspaper. In 1961, she graduated with a B.A. in English and promptly married a fellow student journalist and English major, William S. Peterson. She would remain married to him until they divorced in 1994.

In the first five years after her graduation, as her husband pursued graduate degrees, she lived in Madison, Wisconsin, and Chicago, eventually settling just outside the rural town of Berrien Springs, Michigan, where her husband was hired as a teacher at Andrews University.

Mrs. Peterson worked briefly in the university's public relations department and as a proofreader for the university press, but turned to full-time homemaking after the birth of her first child in 1963. A second child was born in 1969. In 1971, the family moved to Greenbelt.

Writing and Publishing

Mrs. Peterson did not allow her English major to go to waste over the years. In the early 1960s she was placed in charge of a scholarly research segment of the Herman Melville edition published by Northwestern University Press and Chicago's Newberry Library.

In 1975, Mrs. Peterson helped her husband found The Cottage Press, a home-based printing business. Sitting at an enormous electronic typesetter that gave off noxious fumes when pages were printed, she painstakingly typed up books that were published by Oxford University Press, University of California Press, the Browning Institute, and other presses.

She volunteered as a staff writer for the Greenbelt News Review from 1984 until her death and also wrote occasional poems for her own enjoyment.


Amidst her professional and volunteer work, Mrs. Peterson found time to pursue various hobbies, such as collecting newspapers reporting on major world events and planting 50 brightly flowering forsythia shrubs on her lawn.

In the 1970s, she played tennis in Greenbelt tournaments. A couple of weeks before her death, when she received a phone call, she politely declined to talk immediately, saying, "Wimbledon is on."

As a result of accompanying her husband on research trips to England, she acquired an additional interest in soccer. In later years, she was an avid fan of D.C. United, often taping news articles about the soccer team to her apartment door.

Her musical interests ranged from classical to folk to rock. In her final years, she subscribed to such magazines as Rolling Stone and SPIN, wore rock tee-shirts, and joined younger folks in roaring her approval when attending heavy metal concerts.

"My son had a classical guitarist play at his inn, and Eileen asked what his name was," reports her brother Dean Lester. "She recognized who the guitarist was, she knew what sort of guitar he used, she knew who made the guitar."

Later Professional Work

As her youngest child approached adulthood in 1985, Mrs. Peterson returned to the workforce, pursuing jobs related to children and young people. She worked in the Registrations and Records department of University College within the University of Maryland at College Park, and later served as an administrative assistant in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Children's Hospital in D.C.

Her final jobs were at a series of child care facilities in Greenbelt. "I have a degree in English literature and journalism," she concluded a few years before her death, "but all the words I have ever written and the projects I've experienced pale before the sheer joy of every day with eight 'child-buds' between two and four-and-a-half opening to the world with my help."

Survivors and Memorials

Mrs. Peterson's survivors include her children, Heather Peterson of Greenbelt and Glenn "Pete" Peterson of Baltimore, and her siblings in California: Dean Lester of Long Beach, Robert Lester of Loma Linda, and Llona Lester Rowell of Exeter.

Eileen Peterson's family has arranged for several memorial events to occur. Everyone is welcome to take part in these events:

A memorial blog has been started at http://community.livejournal.com/eileenpeterson for anyone to post their memories of Mrs. Peterson and for samples of her writings.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, Sept. 6, at one p.m. at St. Luke's Parish (Episcopal), 4002 53rd St. (at Annapolis Rd.), Bladensburg. The Rev. August Peters, who baptized Mrs. Peterson's children in 1973, will preside.

A memorial open house will be held throughout Sunday, Sept. 7, starting at noon. It will take place at her former home, 9 Maplewood Ct., and will feature photographs and memorabilia.

Donations may be made in memory of Eileen Peterson to the Friends of the New Deal Cafe Arts, c/o Chris Logan (FONDCA Treasurer), 37H Ridge Rd., Greenbelt, MD 20770 (http://www.newdealcafe.com/fondca), or to Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity, 3326 Keswick Rd., Baltimore, MD 21211 (http://www.chesapeakehfh.org/howtohelp/donate_gifts.php).

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