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Through foundation, 'Mr. Pete' continues to inspire

International Falls kindergartners spent a month learning about art with Mason Wilson of The Canvas Butcher, thanks to a grant from the newly formed Mr. Pete Foundation to honor retired International Falls teacher Mike Peterson. The students' completed work will be displayed in an art show today at Falls Elementary School. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
The Mr. Pete Foundation honors retired International Falls teacher Mike Peterson, who joined his wife Renee at the foundation's first fundraising event in October. Peterson, known for being an innovative teacher, was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia in 2010. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

Kim Oppelt's fourth-grade teacher in International Falls made it a school year to remember.

Mike Peterson — better known to his students as Mr. Pete — opened up the world to his students, using plays and games in class to show them that learning can be fun, she said.

His daughter, Hermantown resident Gina Skopinski, said hearing about her dad's greatness as a teacher from her friends, including Oppelt, was a recurring theme in her childhood in International Falls.

"He was always that teacher that everyone loves," Skopinski said.

Five years after Peterson was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, the newly created Mr. Pete Foundation is honoring the popular teacher by providing grant funding for International Falls school district teachers so they can inspire their students by using innovative projects in their classrooms like Peterson did.

The foundation's first grant went to kindergarten teacher and Peterson's former student Molly Pavleck to give Falls Elementary kindergartners a month of learning from International Falls artist Mason Wilson. The project was chosen because it would give the students a boost in arts education, Oppelt said.

Each kindergarten class painted a large canvas, and students created their own individual watercolor paintings. The students' finished products will be on display in an art show open to the public at 2:10 p.m. today at the school.

Skopinski's children are too young to remember their grandfather before he was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. Skopinski said it'll be fun to bring them to the art show to teach them about what their grandfather was like as a teacher.

The foundation has helped Skopinski; her mom, Renee Peterson; and her sisters, Jennifer Peterson and Annie Sawatzky grieve over Peterson's memory loss.

"For me, it was therapy," Skopinski said.

Peterson abruptly retired from teaching in 2009, a year before he was formally diagnosed with Lewy body dementia.

"He always told me he would teach forever," Skopinski said. "He knew. He knew something was wrong."

Although the diseases begin differently, Lewy body dementia eventually resembles the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, according to the Lewy Body Dementia Association. An estimated 1.4 million people in the United States have Lewy body dementia, named for scientist Friederich Lewy who discovered abnormal protein deposits while studying Parkinson's disease a century ago.

For Peterson, it began when he started to see things. He would see water dripping where there wasn't water dripping. He thought the dock was on fire when it wasn't, Skopinski said.

It has progressively gotten worse over the past five years and he now only remembers Skopinski as a young girl. If she says, "It's Gina," he'll respond that one of his three daughters is named Gina and will piece it together that maybe she is his daughter, she said.

"It's like a long, slow goodbye," she said.

As soon as his family members think they've gotten into a routine, Peterson's memory worsens and they're grieving the loss of more memories, she said.

"It's like going through the grieving process over and over on repeat," she said.

Peterson was always in good physical shape and was a coach in International Falls. He still looks like he's 40 years old because it's only his mind that's affected, she said.

In addition to providing additional funding for teachers — Peterson always believed teachers don't receive enough financial help — the foundation's purpose is to bring awareness to memory diseases.

"If they can happen to him, they can happen to anyone," Skopinski said.

She and Oppelt were sitting around one evening talking and crying about Peterson's condition when Oppelt said she had thought about starting a foundation.

Peterson's wife, Renee, had spent four years trying to shield him, preventing the International Falls community from finding out about his condition. Starting a foundation in his honor would be publicly admitting to the small community how sick he was, Skopinski said.

However, she supported the idea and in turn, community support for the foundation has snowballed. A fundraising event in October brought in $20,000 and now they're looking for good ideas from International Falls teachers, Oppelt said.

Skopinski recalled that the best donation they've received so far was a card that was sent around the country between 40 former hockey players who were coached by and played with Peterson. In addition to placing money in the card, the players each included a letter to Peterson explaining how he taught them to be good men and good people.

"It's therapy to sit down and show him a good thing instead of sitting down and wanting to cry," she said.