After graduating from the University of Minnesota and serving in the Army during the Korean War, Les Peterson returned to his southern Minnesota hometown of Trimont, where he embarked on successful, simultaneous careers in farming and banking.
Even though he spent the next 65 years in Martin County, Peterson went on to earn respect on the national level.
“He was an exceptional banker, and he truly loved to farm,” said Mike Mulder, president of Farmers State Bank of Trimont. “He really understood the relationships between agriculture, economics and finance. Because he had such a solid grasp of their interconnectedness, it wasn’t unusual for him to speak with Bob Dole and other legislators, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, or to testify in front of the House or Senate Ag Committees.”
Peterson died April 29 at a hospital in Fairmont, Minn. He was 89.
Peterson, who was born in Elm Creek Township in Martin County, graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1950 with a degree in agricultural education, then spent two years in the Army. He returned to his hometown in 1952 and started farming and working at Farmers State Bank as an assistant cashier.
He eventually became president and CEO of the bank.
“Les was a great guy, and I am fortunate to have known him,” said Joe Witt, president and CEO of the Minnesota Bankers Association (MBA). “He was a great businessman, but he also knew the value of giving back to his community through his many years of service as a mayor and also by volunteering as a fireman and a first responder with the ambulance service. He also gave back to the banking community by serving on numerous MBA committees and boards.”
He served as chairman of the MBA in 1978-79, and of its agricultural task force in 1986. He also served as a director with the American Bankers Association in 1976-77 and helped in the formation of the Midwest Banking Institute.
While serving on an American Bankers Association task force, he helped form the Agriculture Credit Co. and helped start the Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corp. (Farmer Mac).
“At the bank, it was common to answer phone calls from St. Paul, New York or Washington, D.C.,” said Mulder. “It might be a call from the secretary of agriculture’s office one day and the Wall Street Journal the next.”
Despite the national attention, Mulder said Peterson, “didn’t talk about those things much, because he was a very humble and modest man. At the bank he did everything from sweeping the floors and scooping snow to managing the strategic direction and vision.”
Peterson also served as mayor of Monterey, Minn., for three years and Trimont for 15 years, as a volunteer with the fire and ambulance departments for 26 years and as fire chief for three years. He was responsible for bringing the first ambulance to Trimont.
In 2012, Peterson received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences.
In announcing the award, the school noted, “Les is a lifelong educator and mentor. As an agricultural banker, Les has helped countless individuals get their start in farming.”
Other awards won by Peterson were the Bruning Award for outstanding leadership in agricultural banking from the American Bankers Association and, in 1979, the WCCO Radio Good Neighbor award.
Peterson, who was preceded in death by his wife, Kathryn, is survived by two daughters, Greta Christianson of Bloomington and Ingrid Langseth of Worthington; a brother, Paul Peterson of Trimont; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services have been held.