Claremont High School English teacher, loving mother and grandmother
Beloved mother, wife and longtime Claremont High School English teacher Sue Peterson died peacefully at her Rancho Cucamonga home on Saturday, July 14. She was 74.
She left a legacy of love and happiness, most notably encapsulated in her magnificent smile, her family shared, adding that whether one was a loved family member, a life long friend, a new acquaintance or a random phone caller, Mrs. Peterson’s smile radiated an indelible impression of life’s joy.
Mrs. Peterson was born in New Orleans on December 6, 1943 to Chester Lagrone Stanford and Jimmye D. (Williamson) Stanford. Weighing only five pounds at birth, she grew to five feet, two inches tall and, although short in stature, family says she “sang a blissful song that expressed her expansive spirit.”
Her father, lovingly known as “Daddy Doney,” worked as an entomologist for the US Department of Agriculture. His job moved the family to various locations, including Louisiana, Alabama, California, Wyoming and Virginia. “Doney” loved to tell the story about a woman in a bible study who exclaimed, “A kid is leading the children’s group…little Suzzie!” Mrs. Peterson maintained that joyful connection to that little girl’s spirit throughout her life.
Her brother, Chester Lagrone Stanford, often kept a protective eye on his little sister, calling her his “partner in crime.” Their younger sister, Betsy, remembers a story of visiting a cousin’s house.
“The kids took Chester and Suzzie on their first ‘snipe hunt.’ With pillowcases in hand, they crept into the woods as their cousins abandoned them. The two heard an alarming holler and Chester took off running while little Suzzie squatted silently. Chester, who at nine years old stood five feet, four inches tall and weighed 100 pounds, was running for dear life toward the porch when he heard another voice, ‘Stop! Not the…’ With his hands flailing, he burst through a brand-new fence. Cousin lore recollected Chester’s fear contrasted by Suzzie’s bravery. After all, to wait for the snipe to reveal itself was the goal of the ruse. Years later, Sue admitted she had accepted false glory for her bravery, really, she was scared stiff.”
Mrs. Peterson attended the University of Wyoming to study engineering. Unenthused by a career in an industry inundated by the “mid-century male mentality,” she joined the Chi Omega sorority, became treasurer, and changed her love of stories into a career by majoring in English.
She graduated in 1965 and accepted a job as an English teacher with the Claremont Unified School District. Rudolph “Rudy” Wilson, CUSD’s first black instructor, led the teaching trio of Anne Waggoner, Ruth Bobo and Sue Stanford in an experimental program piloted in the mid-1960s.
“Rudy knew how to throw a party,” the family said. “At one of his shindigs, Sue met the love of her life juggling oranges. Willard Carl Peterson Jr., (Pete), juggled his way into a date with Sue. At the end of the date, Pete sealed the deal with a good night handshake. Sue thought, ‘A handshake? I’ll have to give this guy more consideration.’”
Sue loved driving her British racing green Triumph across country, taking in farmlands her father protected from pests as assistant to Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture.
But the Midwestern boy who had left Illinois for California had captured her heart. Pete proposed and wedding plans were finalized in Virginia where family recalls, “Daddy Doney rigged a wooden block to the pedal of a VW bus so little Suzzie could charge off to meet the in-laws.”
The couple married in Ripley, Mississippi, August 16, 1968, on her parents’ 32nd wedding anniversary. In June 1969, the newlyweds purchased their first home on Green Street in Claremont. Eighteen months later Sue’s favorite daughter, Carla Kay, was born.
Mr. Peterson earned a degree in marriage, family and child counseling that same year. Busy with a newborn, Mrs. Peterson enrolled to earn a master’s in the same field, because, she proclaimed, “I’m sick of Pete winning all the damn arguments!”
In 1973 the couple purchased their forever after home atop a hill in Rancho Cucamonga. Mrs. Peterson dubbed it “The Pink Palace.”
Sue’s favorite son Sean arrived in 1975 and their home came to welcome many family and friends, especially Sean’s friends, “who needed a place to stay for a night…or two years.”
A favored family memory, is witnessing Jim—Pete’s parents’ 82-year-old friend—atop a thirty-foot flimsy wooden ladder brush painting the entire house. Sue declared, “Jim transformed the ‘Pink Palace’ into a ‘Cream Castle!’”
Mrs. Peterson loved to teach, and her students appreciated her sense of humor.
“She joked with her students, ‘The test will be cancelled if I’m snowed in,’” her family shares, “The joke was funny until the day she showed up and her classroom was ‘snowed in’ by a drift that had made its way down from Mt. Baldy via a student who hadn’t read the book.”
She effectively served the Claremont Teachers Union and made a dynamic mark across student interactions, impeded only by a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. The disease progressed slowly and Sue maintained, “ I have MS, but I am not MS.”
In the classroom, Mrs. Peterson read expressively to her students teaching skills that inspire them. Former student Caroline Kennedy recalled, “She was the joy in my day at school, with her colorful print dresses, Birkenstocks on her feet and a smile that never rested. She boosted me into the world of literature, and I eventually earning a degree in English and world literature. I am thankful for her and strive to create that inspiration in my teaching.”
She taught both her children in high school. Carla and longtime family friend Charis (Dube) Sharp remember the 20-minute essays each day in her AP Language and Composition, a key technique of Mrs. Peterson’s teaching approach.
Tim Trevan, who remembers writing two-minute mysteries in her class freshman year, credits Mrs. Peterson for his success in college and in life.
“I was a kid who was really unfocused and hers was the only class I actually tried in,” he said. “She had high expectations and believed in me in a way that made me want to be the person she saw. She pulled from you the good, and helped develop what you weren’t so good at.”
Late in her career the mobility challenges of a large classroom were unsuitable, so she moved San Antonio High School in Claremont, where she was rewarded by the one-on-one teacher/student experience.
Sue had one of everything and loved to joke about it. After 32 years, she retired from her favorite career, teaching. In 2003, her favorite husband joined her in retirement and they purchased a handicapped-accessible RV. They spent summers driving east and down south. They frequented their Carlsbad timeshare. At home, they spent time with their children, grandchildren, and Sean’s friends who still lived with them.
Mrs. Peterson loved her family. She welcomed her son-in-law, Michael Webber, to the family on August 16, 1995, their 27th wedding anniversary. In 1999, she became a grandmother for the first time to Charis Moriah Webber. She and her husband were the first visitors to arrive when Micah Elizabeth joined her sister two years later. A third grandchild, Stephen Roy Webber, arrived in 2004.
Mrs. Peterson loved Sean’s fiancé, Helen, and he states, “I love Helen for having many traits I loved about my mom.” Their daughter was born in 2016. Sean asked his mom to choose his daughters middle name. Between “Sue” and “Suzzie” Mrs. Peterson chose Zenash Suzzie Peterson.
Pete was the primary caretaker for Sue, but Mrs. Peterson had many caretakers over her last 20 years. Included are: her son Sean, Matt Bourque, Salina Dutra, Donavan Vrem, Joe Villalobos, Dr. Redi, Bobby Porter, Jesse, Vladimir, Kara Mendez, Eti and Robert Nuenke, the countless nurses of Kaiser, and Margaret “Margie” Kakuk. In Sue’s golden years, her best friend was Margie. Margie became family, and is forever grateful for Mrs. Peterson’s wise council.
The Peterson family is grateful for all the assistance they received over the years. Mr. Peterson is especially thankful for the help of Charis, Eti and Kaiser Hospice in Sue’s final week.
“Sue loved written stories,” her family shares, “She read and read, until she could not turn the page; then she listened to books, and she listened to books, till the day that her own story came to the end.”
Mrs. Peterson is survived by her beloved husband, Pete; her daughter, Carla (aka: Mrs. Webber) and her family, Michael, Charis, Micah and Stephen; Sue’s son Sean; and his family, Helen, and Zenash; and her siblings, Chester and Betsy (aka: Mrs. Bowering).
A memorial will take place at noon on Saturday, September 15 at Cucamonga Christian Fellowship, 11376 Fifth St., Rancho Cucamonga CA, 91739, with an appetizer and dessert reception immediately following.
The family extends the invitation to all who were impacted by Mrs. Peterson. At the family’s request, she would have attendees come as they feel comfortable whether it be “formal attire or bold prints and Birkenstocks.” Please confirm attendance or share memories with email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts in Mrs. Peterson’s name may be made to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society at nationalmssociety.org/donate.