Uncle Dave's book

Sunday, July 20, 2014

52 Ancestors #27: Walter Leonard Peterson, Presbyterian Minister

     Walter Leonard Peterson was my grandfather, very dear to me, so I hope that I can do him justice here!
He was born Alvin Walter Leonard Peterson but the Alvin was not used to my knowledge and he was always known as Walter. He was born on 8 October 1890 at Dassel, Meeker, Minnesota, the son of Adolph Peterson and Hulda Almquist. His parents were born in Sweden and immigrated to America with their parents, Adolph in 1869 and Hulda in 1881. Hulda came to America to live with her father who lived on the farm next door to the one Adolph lived on with his parents. They had five children of whom Walter was the fourth. Throughout their lives the brothers and sisters were always very close.

     Walter spoke only Swedish until the age of 6 when he first went to school. The teacher didn't like Swedes and boxed his ears when he spoke Swedish. He was told that only English was spoken in school so he learned English rapidly! He spoke Swedish as well for the rest of his life. His mother would often tell the story (and later Walter would tell it) of how the pastor came to visit one time and laid his hand on Walter's head (Walter being a little boy) and said, "This one is going to be a Minister." This proved prophetic. In his autobiography, "Celebration of a Life", Walter says, "Later, in his High School years, came another milepost in his life. A disappointment in love made him question whether life was worth living. After brooding over the problem for a time, he came up with the resolution: 'I will live my life to prove to the world the reality and practicalness of Christ and His way of life!'". This was quite a goal to have set for one's self!

     The family moved to Boyceville, Wisconsin when Walter was 10. He went to High School in Menominie, Wisconsin and finished it at Central High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He went to College for a Year at the University of Colorado in Boulder, which is where I found him in the 1910 U.S. Census with his profession given as "Salesman Furniture Store". He homesteaded with his brother, John, in Montana, living on the land and working it for three years to gain ownership.  He then turned it over to a neighbor for share cropping and went to American College in Chicago.  Here he majored in Physical Education.

     It was at American College that he met the love of his life, Elizabeth "Bessie" Hudson.  She also was majoring in Physical Education. He told my sister and I that he saw her in her Physical Education outfit and was bowled over, he knew he wanted her to be his wife. The only problem was that he was engaged to a girl back home.  He liked the girl but wasn't really in love with her, it was more her idea than his.  And it was very much her mother's idea that they should marry. Walter broke up the engagement but then he heard that the girl was very upset.  So he went to see her mother and told her that he would do what was right and marry her daughter if the mother felt he should.  However, he told her they would have to live in the city. The mother didn't want her daughter to live far away in the city and asked if Walter was in love with someone else.  He said, yes.  So she agreed that he shouldn't marry her daughter. Walter left with the ring he had given the girl which he took to Tiffany's and applied it toward a ring for Bessie. Walter and Bessie were married on 17 Aug 1917 at her parents' church in Fort Worth, Texas.

     Walter and Bessie were married almost 65 years. Here is what Walter writes about her in his autobiography: "Central in the richness and fullness of life for Walter was his life mate, Elizabeth.  Ever since he met his 'dream girl' at College sixty years ago, their life has been an unbroken romance.  Her constant love, understanding, readiness to adjust to his ever new situations, and tireless, efficient care for him through every hardship and illness, has been phenomenal."  In 1977, I attended their 60th Anniversary.  Walter toasted his wife saying how glad he was that he had been able to spend the last 60 years "with his sweetheart". I asked them what they attributed their long marriage to and they said, "Communication, they could always communicate and sort out any difficulties between them."

     After they married they first lived in Troy, New York where Walter worked for the YMCA. It was WW I, Walter deplored the war and didn't want to fight on moral and religious grounds.  Bessie was afraid for him as there was tremendous social pressure to go to war.  So, she made him wear his YMCA uniform when out on the streets and he soon joined the Army YMCA.  They were stationed in San Antonio, Texas where Walter was born. From there they went to Fort Worth where Elizabeth, "Betty", and John, "Jack", were born. They moved to Detroit continuing to work for the YMCA until in the early days of the Depression he was let go with most of the employees. At this point, Walter decided to go to seminary and become a Minister. He went to McCormick Seminary, the University of Chicago and Chicago Theological Seminary. He worked part time and Bessie worked as well to back him up in this quest. I asked my grandfather once why , having been raised as a Lutheran, he became a Presbyterian Minister. He replied, "Because Bessie was a Presbyterian". Of course, why did I ask? To me this shows how much she meant to him.

     Walter had a long career as a Minister having churches in Bessemer, Michigan, Seattle, Washington and Tacoma, Washington.  He was the Executive of the Greater Spokane Council of Churches for ten years.  While there he sponsored a program for Bible Classes at 33 elementary schools and successfully fought in the courts to keep them going. During WW II, he defended the Japanese people who were uprooted from their homes in Washington and refused to fire his Japanese Secretary when threatened with violence if he refused.  After the war he accepted a project under the Council of Churches to host nine German Executives to come and study industry in America when the Spokane Chamber of Commerce was afraid to do so. During the turbulent race struggle of the sixties he marched with the blacks of Tacoma from the Baptist Church to City Hall to plead their cause before the City Council. I remember a photo of him leading the march in the Seattle Times on p.1. He lived his convictions as he decided to do when he was in High School. The people of his parishes loved him, as a child I attended at least two different dinners in his honor. I also remember going to one of his Church Services once, he gave a sermon on love which I thought was quite wonderful.  No "hellfire and brimstone" in his sermons.  In his last years he wrote me that he thought that when you died you were reincarnated "either here or on another planet." I thought this was a remarkable comment from a Presbyterian Minister.

     Walter always loved to visit family.  Wherever he went he would try to visit any relatives in the area.  He would embarrass Bessie quite a bit by just showing up without calling first.  When she suggested that they should call he'd say, "Why?They'll be happy to see me." I remember being on some of those visits, and, yes, they were happy to see him! He was proud of his Swedish heritage and told us stories of his family.  When, in the 8th Grade, I had to do a family history project he happily told me about my Swedish ancestors.  In 1957, he was able to go to Scotland on a Ministerial Exchange Program. This enabled him to visit Sweden where he met relatives and found the house his mother had been born in.  Recently, my sister and I followed his footsteps, visiting Sweden and meeting the daughters of the cousins he visited. I remember that he told us the "Swedish way to drink coffee" was to put a sugar cube in your mouth and then drink the coffee through it. I asked a Swedish cousin if this is true and he said that it is an old way, his grandmother used to drink it like that! When I was in High School and my own father lived far away after my parents were divorced. We had a Father-Daughter dinner. My grandfather escorted me to this. I was very proud to be seen with him and happy to have someone to bring to the dinner. In 1967 my sister and I drove with our grandparents to Chicago, Illinois for their 50th Wedding Anniversary. My grandfather drove 75 mph through the Rockies with Bessie saying "Slow down Walter!" the whole way! It was a wonderful trip!

     Walter and Bessie eventually went to a retirement home in Duarte, California, outside of L.A. It was a home for retired Presbyterian Ministers and Missionaries, so I found it much less depressing than retirement homes I have visited. The people there had lived their lives helping people and were vital interesting people. Eventually when they were growing infirm they put Walter and Bessie in different rooms.  This was because that way Walter would have incentive to get out of bed, get dressed and walk over to see Bessie and she would have incentive to get out of bed and get dressed and see him.  They would have lunch together every day.  Bessie died 12 May 1982 and he followed 7 months later on 14 Dec 1982. Two of the best people I ever knew, they were a real love story!

No comments:

Post a Comment