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A Christmas letter to remember from the late John Peterson

Knowing last Christmas would probably be his last, patriarch of the Peterson family looks back on an extremely rich life


(Editor’s note: The following was written by 98-year-old Lake Oswego resident John Peterson — with a bit of help from his family — in December. He died on Christmas Eve. His family shared this letter with the Lake Oswego Rotary and it is reprinted here with the family’s permission.)

By JOHN PETERSON

For the Review

Writing Christmas letters became harder in 2006 because I had just lost Betty, the love of my life, and because I had to take over the writing of the letter from an English teacher. This Christmas letter is difficult because my doctors tell me it will probably be my last. Even at just shy of 99, that is a difficult idea to accept, but I have had an extraordinary life. I would like to take this opportunity to recap why I have reason to be so thankful.by: SUBMITTED - J0HN PETERSON

I was lucky to find a wonderful wife and to spend 64 great years with her, and to have four children who have grown to be adults that I am proud of and who have become my best friends. All four of our children have been married for over 25 years to their first and only spouse. And I have also lived a “Forest Gump” life, touching some extraordinary people and events:

  • Grew up in the small town of Mellen in northern Wisconsin that has not changed significantly over my 99 years. (Population was 1,000 then and now.) Even the house in which I was born has not changed much.
  • Built a log cabin in the woods with my closest friends when we were only 12 or 14 years old, following the hands-on direction of an old retired “”lumberjack” who ended up living in that full-sized “clubhouse.”
  • Built my own radio in 1926 (12 years old!), made a homebuilt TV in 1931.
  • Spent 1931 in Chicago, 17 years old, going to Coyne Radio and Electric School, and working in the Palace Theatre. Saw Al Capone in person. “Laid $2 bets” on the ponies with an inside tip from Capone’s attorney. Stood at rigid attention at the head of my aisle while the Marx Brothers, May West, Milton Berle, Buster Keaton, Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin and many others entertained the Palace crowd.
  • Had a wonderful academic and social experience at Carlton College, including part-time work as a campus bootlegger.
  • Spent my Christmas travel money on a dance while in college and nearly froze to death in a boxcar traveling home to Mellen for Christmas in 20-below weather.
  • Hitchhiked cross-country to attend the 1939 San Francisco world’s fair. Took photos alongside Ansel Adams at Yellowstone Park. Met Pat O’Brien, the son of my mother’s friend and had cocktails with him in his Hollywood home.
  • Formed a swing band made up of CCC workers (I played saxophone and clarinet) and played at the Little Bohemia Speakeasy resort where the FBI attacked John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson. The young man killed by the FBI was from my small town.
  • Taught high school, was an assistant football coach, met my wife, and made lifetime friends with my students. Betty and I attended their reunions up to 60 years later.
  • Spent three years at sea during World War II as commander of the navy contingent on three Liberty ships; dropped Marines and supplies at Iwo Jima, Saipan, Guam and Okinawa; and, literally circled the earth at sea.
  • The man responsible for buying the wood for Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose plane boarded with my mom in our home in Mellen. He talked to Howard daily.
  • Drove cross-country to attend a Lena Horne concert at the Mark Hotel in San Francisco in 1939, only to find it was sold out. Stepped into an elevator with Lena, and told her what I had done. She arranged for me to attend the concert. I met and talked to my all-time favorite entertainer!
  • After the war, Betty and I settled in Lake Oswego, an ideal town in a wonderful part of the Northwest. We lived 53 years in a very nice house, and 10 years in Mary’s Woods, a wonderful retirement center in Lake Oswego — 63 years in this perfect community of Lake Oswego. Found a lifetime of reward and fraternity in the Lake Oswego Rotary Club.
  • 10 years in the theater supply business from 1947 to 1957, touring all the small towns in Oregon, meeting great characters. Became very close friends with some great personalities: Bill Markham, and Tommy Moyer, to name two.
  • 15 years in the leasing business, finishing as president of Weyerhaeuser Leasing; president and lifetime member of NAFA. Had my picture taken with Lee Iacocca.
  • Spent countless weeks in Oregon forests, hiking with our family, highlighted by a 60-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail near Lake Chelan, Wash., with my wife and four children.
  • Served on the Lake Oswego School Board for almost 20 years and was its president in 1970 when Lakeridge High School was built. I recruited the prominent architect, John Storrs, who had designed Salishan Lodge and talked him into designing his first school.
  • 52-year member of the Order of the Antelope, 30-plus years with the Oregon Trails Club. More great people. More and deeper contact with the wonderful people of Oregon.
  • Took my oldest boys to the 1960 Winter Olympics in Sun Valley. Went to two Super Bowls.
  • Spent many happy years snow skiing with my family on Oregon’s magnificent mountains. Climbed Mount Hood.
  • Flew in a helicopter piloted by my son to an oil rig in the North Sea.
  • Went to sea on a nuclear submarine commanded by another son.
  • Drove around Europe for six months with Betty in a Volkswagen camper in our 70s.
  • Mine was a life full of wonderful people and rewarding experiences, and I am finishing while living in a first-class facility surrounded by caring people.

    Please accept this letter as a celebration of a wonderful life. You have all made my life richer.

    Thank you,

    John Peterson

    Jan. 31, 1914 - Dec. 24, 1912

    “Dad asked for help with this letter in mid-December. He went on an outing to view Christmas lights on the night of Dec 19th; became bed-ridden on the 22nd; said goodbye to his lifelong friends and family on the 23rd; and died early on the 24th. He lived superbly to the last moment of his 98 years, 11 months. It is an honor to send this on his behalf.”

    John’s family: Chuck and Bobbie Peterson; Rick, Lynne, Brant and Jen Peterson; Marnie and Joe Blankenship, Leah Dellay, John and Daniel Blankenship and Jeremiah Dellay; Bill, April and Katya Peterson.



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