Judy Peterson honored by Orange County Education Foundation

The Orange County Education Foundation will honor local music teacher Judy Peterson at its annual Celebration of Education on Sunday, Aug. 25. Peterson taught at Unionville and Lightfoot elementary schools for 36 years. 

To listen to Judy Peterson talk about teaching, her childhood in Alaska or pretty much anything else is to behold someone who knows how to have fun and enjoy life.

Peterson brought her joie de vivre with her every day during her 36 years of teaching at Unionville and Lightfoot elementary schools, and she continues to light up the room when she leads sing-alongs at the Orange Senior Center, cooks for the Boys & Girls Club or performs with community bands.

With her many contributions to the community in mind, the Orange County Education Foundation (OCEF) has chosen Peterson as this year’s honoree at its “Celebration of Education” fundraiser on Sunday, Aug. 25, from 2 to 4 p.m., at The Pavilion on Lakeland Farm in Orange.

OCEF board member and retired educator Martha Roby said Peterson is the first arts teacher the group has honored in its eight years of annually recognizing a stellar local educator. Noting that recent studies indicate that the arts are a valuable means of stimulating young brains, she called Peterson a “true champion for students” and an innovative problem-solver.

Roby recalled how, in the early 1980s, Peterson and a group of her elementary school students protested the school board’s plan to cut arts funding during a lean budget year. The children sang and played their ukuleles on the steps of the Orange County Courthouse while board members edged between them to get inside to their meeting.

“Guess what?” Roby said. “The arts were not cut that year.”

During an interview last week at her home on Tomahawk Creek Road, Peterson, 76, described the winding path that led her to Orange and her job teaching music and running gifted and talented programs for the Orange County Public Schools.

Both her parents came from large farm families. Her father, a native of Spokane, Wash., was a middle child of 12 siblings, and her mother, from South Dakota, was the youngest of 13. Together they reared seven children, with Judy first in line. Born in Seattle, she moved with her parents and siblings to Alaska when she was 8 years old.      

Her father’s jobs took the family to Juneau and then to Anchorage. She got to know native children and loved watching the 8-millimeter movies her father made during his travels all over the state. Summer temperatures rose into the upper 70s, just right for blueberries and salmon and halibut fishing. When winter came, the mercury dropped to 20 to 25 degrees below zero. Young Judy loved her Alaskan childhood, all the more so because she and her family were close.

It was in Alaska that her musical talent was first identified. While she was in third grade in Juneau, the nuns at her Catholic school plucked her out of her class and had her sing with “the big kids” instead.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” Peterson said.

Asked what she thought the nuns recognized in her, she said, “When I was doing music, I was happy; I was involved. And they saw a spark.”

Her family moved to Del Rio, Texas, the year she started high school. She was “devastated” to discover her new Catholic school had no music program. After a year, she transferred to the public high school, where the band director knew talent when he saw it just like the Alaskan nuns did.

Her soon-to-be mentor, Ralph Pauley, initially wanted her to play the clarinet.

“I had never played a band instrument, ever,” Peterson said.

Her experiments with the clarinet didn’t go well. When Pauley asked if she wanted to try percussion instead, she discovered she liked playing drums and cymbals.            

Happiness kicked in again: “As long as I didn’t have to blow a clarinet, I was good,” she said with a laugh.

Her talent and leadership potential quickly became evident. She started a girls’ octet during her junior year, played the lead in a high school musical and sang a solo during her graduation ceremony. That might have been the sum of her music career, if Pauley hadn’t prodded her to audition with the music department at Sul Ross College (now Sul Ross University) in Alpine, Texas. Her audition earned her a spot in the school’s music education program.

After graduation, she taught fifth grade in Corpus Christi, Texas, until her marriage to John “Pete” Peterson, whom she met at a naval air station, took her on the road. Due to his career in the Navy, the couple lived in numerous places before settling in Orange in 1972 and rearing their two children here. (Son Scott lives in Houston, and their daughter, Kelly Peral, lives in Orange and plays oboe for the Charlottesville Symphony.)

Once Peterson began teaching at Lightfoot and Unionville elementary schools, she quickly found a niche. As a music teacher, she got her young students excited about music. She started a glee club and collected enough ukuleles to allow every student in her class to learn the instrument, which originated in Hawaii. In 1974, after just two years of teaching in the local schools, she received the “outstanding young educator” award from the Orange County Jaycees.

Her teaching career went beyond music. She launched the gifted and talented programs at Unionville and Lightfoot, created a math club, led drama productions and spearheaded a local geography bee (similar to a spelling bee). All of her teaching and extracurricular activities were in the name of helping students find the same joy in learning that she has felt all her life.

What did she especially like about teaching music to young children?

“You can inspire right from the beginning. Music can be a challenge and difficult but worth learning,” she said.

Asked her advice for an elementary school music teacher just starting out, Peterson didn’t have to think long: “Don’t let it become work. Have fun teaching. Children learn best when they’re having fun and enjoying themselves.”

One of the many students who loved her approach to teaching is Garrett Ellinger, 21, who studied music with her when he was in fourth grade at Lightfoot.

“She was awesome. We got to play all the instruments we wanted. She always incorporated some fun activities in class,” he said.

Like Peterson, young Ellinger plays percussion instruments. Under her tutelage, he learned to play a variety of hand drums, including congas, bongos and the djembe.

Although Peterson retired the year after she taught him, Ellinger said they stayed in touch. He often saw her in the audience when he was performing in concerts at Orange County High School. He credits his recent decision to continue his education at Virginia Commonwealth University in hopes of a career in teaching music in part to Peterson’s encouragement.

Deanne Marshall, secretary and treasurer of the OCEF board, said she recommended Peterson for the OCEF award because she recalled how much all three of her children had enjoyed their classes with the popular teacher at Lightfoot and Unionville.

“Any kids who went through those two schools—Mrs. Peterson impacted those kids somehow, some way,” Marshall said. “She is such a positive, radiant person. You can see the kindness in her eyes. She is just a loving soul. You can feel it and you can see it. I know the kids all just loved her and had such a positive experience with her.”

The Orange County Education Foundation’s “Celebration of Education” will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 25, at The Pavilion on Lakeland Farm. Tickets are $35, and advance purchase is encouraged. To order tickets, contact treasurer@ocedfoundationva.org.

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Hilary Holladay writes for the Orange County Review.