THE “YES” MAN: The community contributions of Ellery Peterson ’49

Posted on September 15th, 2010 by

Professor Emeritus Ellery Peterson '49 (Photo submitted)

by Jessie Doig ’09

St. Peter Kiwanis chair and Gustavus professor emeritus and alumnus Ellery Peterson ’49 lives just three blocks down the hill from the Gustavus Adolphus College campus. It’s a quick stroll to Gustavus’s C. Charles Jackson Campus Center, the place he visits most Thursday mornings to meet with friends and colleagues at weekly Kiwanis Club meetings.

Peterson attends these meetings at 6:30 a.m. every week, acting as “ex-officio” greeter for club members and visitors. Given Peterson’s high involvement in both Gustavus and the Kiwanis Club during his life, it is not surprising that the Kiwanis Club meets each Thursday morning in the College’s campus center, where Peterson eats breakfast, socializes, listens to speakers, and helps plan Kiwanis Club events and service opportunities.

Because of his involvement in Kiwanis Club and in various organizations around the Nicollet County community, Peterson was honored with the 2010 Nicollet County Outstanding Senior Citizen Award. But, if you ask Peterson about this prestigious award and the events surrounding his recognition, he’s the first to acknowledge that he didn’t expect it and proceeds to comment on everyone else in the greater St. Peter community who is doing a good job serving the community.

In fact, when asked about his recent trip to the Minnesota State Fair for a special award ceremony honoring this year’s senior citizen recipients, Peterson neither made a statement about how he felt during the ceremony nor what being an outstanding senior meant to him. Instead, he says: “You know what, it’s been a long time since I’ve been to the fair. [Laughs] Since Bob Hope was on.”

You come to realize very quickly that Peterson’s attitude about community service isn’t about the recognition or even how serving helps him to feel he’s made a difference or contribution to the greater good. He’s not philosophical or ideological, for that matter. Peterson instead has an old-school mentality about it all: it’s all about the call of duty. Put simply, when Peterson is asked to help, he says yes.


Kiwanis Club is one of many organizations Peterson has given time to since retiring from Gustavus in 1990. In fact, Peterson’s long-standing community service record began before he taught his first classroom of students and even before he began an academic semester at Gustavus as a student. His service record began with the United States military in 1944.

Though enlisting before the end of World War II, Peterson was never sent into battle. He was brought in to become educated in military coding and was stationed in Italy until he was sent home in 1946. He enrolled as a student at Gustavus in February 1947 and continued his education until the spring of 1949 when he earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting.

Peterson admits he never thought he would end up as a professor or even back at Gustavus. Rather, he had ambition to one day own an accounting practice.

The journey back to Gustavus involved a brief job with Green Giant in Le Sueur, followed by study for a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota, and then work for a small CPA firm in the Twin Cities. It was 1965, and he was approached by Gustavus to take over a teaching position for one year. As fate would have it, he said “yes,” and the one-year opportunity became longer.

Peterson was invited to stay at Gustavus permanently and the College supported his aspirations of having an accounting office in downtown St. Peter in addition. So St. Peter became home for Peterson, his wife, Aileen, and their four children.

Professor Emeritus Ellery Peterson and former Student Trustee Al Henderson in 2009. (Photo submitted)

Some of Peterson’s fondest memories in his 35 years of teaching include the opportunities to lead economics and management majors abroad to Europe. During these trips, Peterson would take students on tours of European banks, factories, and financial institutions. He brought a significant amount of expertise to traveling in Europe with young people. “Having been in Italy while I was in the military gave me a handle on what to expect from European [culture].”

The expertise Peterson brought to the Gustavus classroom was not limited to his grasp on business and accounting principles, or European cultural awareness. He was adamant about making sure students fully understood their responsibility to their communities during and after their time at Gustavus.

“He not only provided them with the subject matter of his courses, but he spent much time in helping them to understand that their education included the development of a broad background of working with others in a positive way,” says Ellis Jones ‘52, professor emeritus and Peterson’s long-time colleague.

Peterson was able to lead his students by example. Just as his students saw him fulfilling community commitments outside of the classroom, Peterson encouraged his students to be open to the responsibilities and serve in their own communities.


Aside from his commitment to the students of Gustavus, Peterson became involved in St. Peter almost immediately after moving to the small river town by volunteering at church and joining the Rotary Club. Just two years after moving to St. Peter, he became a city council member.

Says Peterson, “They asked me to serve on the council and I said yes . . . they were trying to make the city a better place and they wanted some new blood.”

Peterson served as a council member before giving up his seat, stating he didn’t need to make a lifetime out of being on the city board because he didn’t think of himself as a politician. He was on the city council for two terms, while the city was growing and parks were developing.

His terms as city council member were the beginning of his appointments in St. Peter. He was asked to serve as a charter member of the St. Peter Economic Development Authority (EDA) in 1987. He said yes. Peterson was also asked to run for mayor of St. Peter in 1992. Once again, he said yes. He served as city administrator in 1996. Peterson says quite simply, “They asked me to come and fill in for the summer in the city administrator position, so I did.”

In 1997, Peterson was again asked to serve as a member of the St. Peter EDA. His expertise in business was critical for the city during the rebuilding stages following the 1998 tornado.

City administrator Todd Prafke says Peterson’s influence in the city following the tornado was crucial. “Ellery’s guidance and leadership were vital in crafting the EDA’s response to the 1998 tornado, which damaged numerous St. Peter businesses. As a result, the assets of the EDA’s revolving loan fund were put to use rebuilding the commercial and industrial sector of the community.”

Repeatedly Peterson has been asked to fulfill numerous roles in his community, and again and again he has been a man to say yes, and come through to make an impact in the positions he holds. He acknowledges of his work with the city, “I spread my wings quite wide. I was comfortable helping in ways I could in the mathematical field.”


Ellery Peterson '49 and Carol Peterson. (Photo submitted)

The thing Peterson is more willing to talk about than anything else is his family. His first wife, Aileen, passed away in 2000, and he will be entering his 10th year of marriage with his second wife, Carol. Peterson is extremely proud of his five children, 12 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

He believes he was fortunate to bring his children up in St. Peter and that Gustavus gave them the opportunity to attend school there. When asked what he was most proud of in life Peterson says, “To be real honest, the fact that I was able to get my children educated here. The school has always treated me and my family well.”

Peterson’s deep-rooted connection to Gustavus continues even at 83, as evidenced by his continued vocational and career support of Gustavus faculty and alumni. He serves as an esteemed mentor to the Gustavus community and also volunteers each fall as a Nobel Conference usher and greeter.

Meeting Peterson, it’s not surprising to see that he’s such a valuable member to the Gustavus community. Among his peers, Peterson is clearly a leader with a unique charm. People naturally trust and gravitate to him. Pastor Alan Bray of First Lutheran Church, where Peterson attends, best sums it up when he says, “[Ellery] is well liked and much respected by all for his honesty, his jovial personality, his willingness to work hard for any cause he believes in, his initiative, and his compassion for people in need.”

When asked once more about his lifetime accomplishments and his recent Outstanding Senior Citizen recognition, Peterson made this particularly insightful comment: “I just think that getting people to work together is the best thing you can do.”

If one thing is certain, Ellery Peterson is a Gustavus alumnus who has demonstrated the Gustavus core value of community. Through all his efforts over the years, Peterson has made a difference by helping build a stronger greater St. Peter community, volunteering his knowledge, and bringing people together for a common good in the place that he lives.


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