Pat Peterson celebrates 90th birthday

Longtime Williston resident revels in family, friends

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Williston had reason to celebrate last Friday, and most people probably didn’t even know it: Jeneva Peterson, a long-time resident, turned 90 last week.

Who is Jeneva Peterson? Most people know her as “Pat.”

“I’m ‘Pat’ because I was ‘Patterson’ before I was ‘Peterson,” explained Peterson in an interview on her birthday.

Regardless of how she is known, Peterson has contributed much to Williston. In addition to being a charter member of the Williston Historical Society, Peterson worked in the town library for 41 years.

Rickie Emerson, who retired as library director after 30 years this fall, said Patterson was “instrumental” in building the library.

“She always had her finger on the pulse of the town, and she knew everybody,” said Emerson. “She represented long-time residents in town. She kept their interests in mind. She would help me buy books, talk about programs.”

Peterson moved to Williston in December 1944, when she says there were fewer than 1,000 names on the voter registration list.

“We sort of got to know everybody in town,” Peterson said of herself and her husband, Dr. Oscar Peterson Jr. who went by the nickname Pete. “There were a lot of farms there then, and itinerant workers.”

The Peterson family lived in a big brick house at the corner of Oak Hill and Williston Roads before purchasing what the family called North Williston hill in 1946. The Petersons raised five daughters, three of whom still live in Williston. Brenda Perkins, the youngest daughter, lives in the house in which the children grew up on Peterson Lane; Jeneva Burroughs lives on the same road; Karen Shastenay lives in the village. Two additional daughters live in Michigan and Tennessee.

All of the daughters, many friends, and a good number of Peterson’s 19 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren gathered at the First Baptist Church in Burlington on Saturday to celebrate Peterson’s milestone.

Peterson, born in Milton, said her father often told her it was 20 degrees below zero the day she was born, and that they were butchering hogs.

“I’m a true Vermonter,” said Peterson last week. “I think I’m the sixth generation.”

Peterson graduated from high school in 1933, during the height of the Great Depression. As a result, she said, “my dreams of going to college were put on hold” – a dream she still regrets never pursuing. She got a position at the wholesale house of Hagar Hardware and Paint Co. on the corner of King and St. Paul Streets in Burlington where she worked for four years – first as a stenographer and eventually as a billing clerk.

In 1936, Peterson married her husband, a medical student in residency at Mary Fletcher Hospital. The couple moved briefly to Whitingham, back to Burlington, and then to Massachusetts as Peterson’s husband pursued additional studies in radiology.

After settling in Williston in 1944, the couple became involved in town activities. The beginning of a school hot lunch program was one effort to which Peterson devoted time. Another was the new library.

“We had very few books,” said Peterson. “We weren’t sure how to catalog, but we did our best. We were only open three days a week and one evening. So we took turns for evenings and Saturdays.”

Peterson said that of her time in Williston she is most grateful for the goodness of residents and the friendships she has had.

Gertrude Urie, who said her family grew up with the Petersons, said she has known Pat Peterson since 1946 or 1947. Urie recalls her and Peterson’s reupholstering furniture together. And once or twice a year, she said, the two friends would dress in formal gowns for a special dinner just for them and their husbands.

Peterson isn’t sure to what to attribute her longevity, though she said it runs in her family; her father lived to be 95.

Several friends interviewed mentioned Peterson’s love of people, her seamstress skills, and the fact that she made all of her daughters’ wedding dresses. They also spoke of her personality.

“She is a woman of great moral character,” said Emerson. “A lot of depth, with a wicked sense of humor. To me she stands for all the good qualities that women are supposed to have.”