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Meet the remarkable 'Mrs. Pete'

Trying to get an interview with Janet Petersen wasn't as easy as one might expect with someone who's been retired for 33 years. Wednesday she was playing golf with three former students in the morning, then going out for lunch; after that she was...

Janet Petersen
Janet Petersen, "Mrs. Pete" as she was known to legions of Denfeld High School students, will be the guest of honor at a luncheon Sept. 27. Jana Peterson/Budgeteer News

Trying to get an interview with Janet Petersen wasn't as easy as one might expect with someone who's been retired for 33 years. Wednesday she was playing golf with three former students in the morning, then going out for lunch; after that she was meeting her neice. On Thursday, the 95-year-old was picking up three friends to go play bridge.

"I gallivant," said Petersen.

Indeed, she does.

"Mrs. Pete" as she's known to thousands of Denfeld High School students who first met her when she taught at Denfeld from 1958 to 1976, celebrated her 95th birthday with a big party at the Pike Lake Auto Club golf course, where she still golfs on Thursday mornings during the summer months with the ladies' league. While she's done with her Thursday golf league for now, the sprightly white-haired lady will pick it up again when she gets to her condo in Brownsville, Texas, after Christmas. (Note: Petersen has shot a hole-in-one in both Duluth and Brownsville.)

Despite the fact that both her parents emigrated here from Scotland, Petersen actually didn't start playing golf until she was in her early 50s.

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Petersen credits her fitness of mind and body -- she could easily pass for someone 20 years younger -- to staying active, love of church and family, and good genes. Her sister, Elsie, who died last week, would have been 98 next month.

"I tell everybody to keep active," she said. "Don't sit down and feel sorry for yourself. If you lose your spouse (her beloved husband, Bud, died in 2003) keep on living, that's what he would want you to do. And don't watch the boob tube too much."

Petersen's had a lifetime of active. Growing up, she was a bit of a tomboy.

"My dad played golf and curled; he was very athletic," said Petersen, whose maiden name was Falconer. "I loved going up to Northland [Country Club] in the winter. We could go up and ski or toboggan. And I would always try to fight my little brother's battles, even if he was losing in a game of marbles."

After attending first grade in Elgin, Scotland (where she lived with her Grandma and Grandpa Brodie for a year), Petersen went to elementary school at Lakeside, junior high at East and high school at Central.

Despite being a Central grad who raised three daughters who graduated from East, she still cheers for Denfeld at game time.

"I was there for 17 years," she explains. "I was at Central for only three."

At Denfeld, Petersen taught P.E., plus she was the cheerleader and Girls' Club adviser as well as the Power Club (pep club) sponsor. Her gym classes were for girls only; Petersen retired just after Title 9 passed, granting equal opportunity for girls athletics in school.

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"I'm all for Women's Lib," Petersen said. "I like certain courtesies, like men opening the door, but men were so in control before. We're just as smart as men, sometimes smarter."

She recalled a fellow teacher who hid her marriage until the end of the school year, because only single women were supposed to teach. Married women, it was assumed then, had husbands to look after them while they stayed in the home.

"That was a dumb rule," she said.

Fortunately, it was no longer in play when Petersen took her teaching job at Denfeld.

"Everyone loves Mrs. Pete," said former student Sandy Ehle said. "Just her whole being is an inspiration. It was a good experience to have her as a teacher and an adviser."

Petersen has kept in touch with many of her former students. She has attended most of the Class of 1960's functions and is already planning to go to their 50th reunion next fall.

"It's amazing," said Ehle. "Mrs. Pete remembers everyone by their maiden name. She saw me and said 'Sandy Downs, how are you?'"

"I loved my years at Denfeld. I think I taught at the best of times," said Peterson. "But I love being retired, too."

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She also loves living in Duluth. Petersen can point out her back window to the house where she was born in 1914, and she's lived in her little green house since shortly after she married.

"Too many folks who've lived here their whole lives don't realize how lucky they are," she said.

Talking with Petersen, another possible explanation for her longevity comes to mind: Her ability to embrace life, with all its ups and downs. A healthy dose of humor probably helps as well.

Petersen has three daughters -- Janet, Jean and Kathy -- six grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren (and another due next month).

"Look what Bud and I started," she says, laughing.

NEWS TO USE
Several former students are planning a surprise lunch for Mrs. Pete at 1 p.m. Sept. 27 at Mr. D's in West Duluth (5622 Grand Ave.). Cost is $10 per person or $15 a couple, but organizers need an RSVP by Monday noon, Sept. 21, and money up front. To find out more or to RSVP, call Sandy Ehle at 624-7961. Mail payment to Ehle at 3524 Garden Park Drive, Hermantown, MN 55810.

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