Richard T. Peterson was a tireless advocate for thousands of teenage boys who were declared delinquent by the courts and referred to Boys Totem Town in St. Paul.
During the 38 years he served as the principal of the school portion of the residential correction program run by Ramsey County, Peterson touched the lives of nearly 8,400 youths. He mentored them. He educated them. In some cases he even paid for their GED exams.
“What he talked about most was keeping track of the kids when they came in and their reading level, and how they jumped grade levels,” said his grandson Richard Ahn, of Chicago. One student went on to become a doctor; another a lawyer. “These kids actually had hope. He gave them a second chance.”
Peterson died Jan. 16 from complications of a stroke while at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. He was 91.
Peterson retired from Boys Totem Town in 1986, but his support for the campus in the Battle Creek area of St. Paul and its educational programs continued.
As a longtime member of the Maplewood-Oakdale Lions Club, he coordinated yearly donations that are used for everything from buying library books, covering college application fees, providing clothing, and paying for cultural trips to places such as the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts and the Walker Art Center.
“His spirit has been with us every day that our school program is in operation,” said Theresa Neal, current principal of Boys Totem Town’s school program, which is operated by the St. Paul public schools.
“Many [of our students] did not meet him, but they personally have been the recipients of his graciousness and love for the program.”
Peterson was last on campus in October, when the school celebrated its 100th anniversary. A handcrafted canoe made by students now hangs in the hallway in Peterson’s honor, Neal said.
Born in St. Paul, Peterson graduated from Washington High School in 1940. He played guard on the football team and was named to the all-city team. He enrolled at Macalester College in St. Paul, but his education was interrupted by World War II.
While in the Army, he had dreams of becoming a pilot but, because he was color blind, was assigned to working on weather prediction instead. Weather became a lifelong hobby for him, his grandson said.
“He’d talk about the different types of clouds and what type of weather would be coming,” Ahn said. “He was a big golfer and was the weatherman for the golf crew. He’d know whether they could get out before a storm or have to reschedule.”
Peterson graduated from Macalester after the war and subsequently earned a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota.
He won several awards for his work with the Maplewood-Oakdale Lions Club and was named a Melvin Jones Fellow, the Lions Club International’s highest honor. In recent years, Peterson volunteered his time collecting food and delivering groceries for the North St. Paul food bank.
“He was pretty proud of that. He never stopped doing stuff,” Ahn said. “He always cared for those around him He was an amazing guy.”
In his down time, Peterson was an avid cribbage and card player.
Besides his grandson, Peterson is survived by a sister, Phyllis Lee, of St. Paul; a daughter, Nancy Ahn, of Hastings, and another grandson, Michael, of Eagan.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Feb. 15 at Woodbury Lutheran Church, 7380 Afton Road, Woodbury.