Rockets, truck rides and a big heart.
Tony Petersen, who taught at 13 Clovis Unified school sites and served as a principal twice in his 40 years as an educator, was a different type of educator.
Throughout his career, his lesson plans were often tied to current affairs that were reported in The Fresno Bee. His seventh-graders wrote high school-level term papers. And his students and peers were never far from a listening ear with him.
After retiring from education in 1993, Petersen returned to the classroom as a substitute teacher for a few years before answering a call to launch a second career as a full-time teacher “where he really made another impact,” his son Tony Petersen said.
Those who knew Petersen say he left a legacy of hard work and loyalty to education. He died March 15. He was 87.
Wanted and needed
Retired teacher and principal Scott Steele described Petersen as an asset for Clovis Unified.
Petersen hired Steele as a teacher in 1982 and they worked together until Petersen retired in 1993. They reunited in 2000 when Steele, then principal at Century Elementary, filled a teaching opening at his school with his old boss who had shared that he missed the classroom. Petersen left retirement to teach once again while in his 70s and into 80s.
“Personally and professionally, he’s one of the greatest guys that I’ve ever known. He was special,” Steele, now executive director of California League of Schools, said. “He was definitely in it for all the right reasons.”
Steele got “two for the price of one,” he said, when Petersen began his nearly 10 years teaching at Century because his wife, Tina, came with him to teach in the classroom.
Steele remembers that on Petersen’s birthdays, the couple would arrange a birthday party for Petersen at the school and all of his former sixth-graders were invited. Some were in high school while others were long graduated, but still attended the party.
Janet Young, retired Clovis Unified superintendent, said she always knew Petersen had a big heart for kids.
She got to know his “larger than life” personality when Petersen hired Young as a teacher at Nelson Elementary in the 1980s. She said his positivity was contagious and “made us all better.”
“He was wanted and needed at different sites,” she said. “He had a tremendous ability to motivate and inspire.”
Young said Petersen possessed one quality that made him most likable: care. “His heart was for the kids. His care showed for everyone around him.”
Like a second father
On his last day of eighth grade at Pinedale Elementary in the late 1960s, Vince Borjas cried. No longer would he be Mr. Petersen’s student. So saying goodbye was hard, he said.
“I knew that was over,” Borjas said.
The poverty and setbacks in Pinedale were hard to ignore at times for students like Borjas. He said that often contributed to lower confidence and the thought that he didn’t fit in with other kids. But Petersen always encouraged Borjas, and his classmates, to strive for higher goals. Petersen encouraged Borjas to go to college. Now retired, Borjas attended Fresno State, played football and became a teacher.
Borjas described Petersen as a “super teacher” who always campaigned to bring new learning opportunities to students.
“He’d get in there and he’d battle for you,” Borjas said. He was “like a second father.” Borjas fondly remembers Petersen giving students rides home in his old black pickup.
Petersen coached several sports along with teaching. Borjas said he played school sports primarily because Coach Petersen told him he believed he could do it. “He just saw something in me.”
Petersen’s own athleticism earlier in life landed him on a traveling basketball team when he joined the Army during the Korean Conflict. His platoon’s orders were shifted to other duties and Petersen stayed in the United States and entertained troops with basketball.
Before that, he played several sports at Washington Union High School and later at Reedley College. He was inducted into the Reedley College Athletic Hall of Fame and is in the second class of the Washington Union Athletic Wall of Fame to be honored April 6.
Petersen’s teams delivered championships in flag football, basketball and track. The honors were as much for Petersen as they were for the kids, according to Borjas.
“You wanted to win for him,” he said. “You didn’t want to disappoint him because you knew he cared.”
‘He did it his way’
Petersen’s own grandchildren got a taste of what he was like as a teacher. Nine of them, including two of Tony Petersen’s children, had the elder Petersen as a teacher or went to the same school where he taught. Tony Petersen’s children said their grandfather encouraged students to perform higher-level work than usual, but it was worth it.
Tony Petersen’s wife, Lisa, said Petersen often went beyond what a regular teacher did for students. She accompanied Petersen and his wife on yearly trips to Atwater, where Petersen’s combined fifth- and sixth-grade class at Century witnessed a mock space expedition. The lead-up to the big trip was the class’ own rocket launch at school organized by Petersen.
The kids recycled water bottles all year to raise money for the yearly trip. But Lisa Petersen said she believes her father-in-law contributed most of the funds.
His “innovative” ways of teaching were meant to give students a different kind of learning experience, one that wasn’t directly tied to a book. His students learned knitting, Spanish and Shakespeare along with the regular curriculum items. Perhaps as a result, test scores from his classes were often among the highest, his son said.
The library at Gettysburg Elementary, one of two where he worked as principal, was named after Petersen. In addition to that honor, Petersen and his wife were given the Clovis Hall of Fame Friend of Youth Award. Petersen was also recognized with the Unforgettable Teacher Award at Alta Sierra Intermediate School.
Petersen’s outlook on education? “If it was good for kids, do it,” his son said.
“He taught the kids how to learn. He taught them how to learn and succeed,” Tony Petersen added. “He always did what he loved doing. He did it his way.”
Born: Oct. 2, 1931
Died: March 15, 2019
Occupation: Retired school teacher and principal
Survivors: Wife Tina Petersen, sons Randy, Tony, George and Geoff Petersen, daughters Becky and Shelly and many grandchildren.
Services: 5 to 8 p.m. Monday, March 25 at Clovis Veterans Memorial District, 808 4th St.