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CELE PETERSON

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Date submitted: October 24, 2006
Gift: General Gift
Location on plaza map: C5
 
Cele Peterson, a visionary and an activist, will turn 100 on March 14, 2009 and she is still busy as a catalyst for business, cultural, environmental, and children’s organizations in Tucson, Arizona. She grew up in the wildest days of Bisbee, a little mining town in Arizona close to the border with Mexico. She tells stories about watching skirmishes of the Mexican Revolution from high on the hills across the valley, sitting at the knee of an old “mule skinner” listening to tales of the West, and of her brother dynamiting their backyard to build a garden for their mother. Cele maintains that her strength and persistence is due to the 365 steps she climbed up and down the steep hills of Bisbee to and from school every day.
At fifteen, she graduated from high school and began attending the University of Arizona. She went on to Sullins College in Bristol, Virginia and George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Cele worked at the Library of Congress in the manuscript division in the late 1920’s. She was sent to Mexico City where she continued her work of translating old Spanish manuscripts pertaining to the history of the Southwest.

In 1931, when Cele opened a dress shop in Tucson, she began a career that integrated her love of history, creativity as a designer, business acumen and intelligence with her values and desires to improve the community. Today, Cele will still tell you that her most important priority always was her love for her husband Tom and their five children. Her love today continues to be centered on her on children, her 14 grandchildren and her 10 great grandchildren.

For the last 78 years, Cele Peterson Fashion’s has grown and changed with the times, yet Cele claims she has never worked a day in her life. She loves what she does, and has adventures and honors that reflect her enthusiasm. In the 1940’s she initiated a daily radio broadcast from her downtown store. In the 1950’s she was selected as a young American designer to participate in the Merrimack fashion show at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Her denim tailored “Station Wagon Togs” drew international recognition. Her designs celebrated Arizona’s special resources: copper, cotton, climate, and cattle.

Along the way, Cele founded what is now known as the Tucson Children’s Museum, was a co-founder of the Casa de Los Niños, the first crisis nursery in the United States, and was very involved in the beginnings of the Arizona Theater Company and the Tucson Opera Company. She was the instigator of a non-profit organization that celebrates Tucson’s Birthday and culture every August. Cele created the idea for Kids International Neighborhood, a non-profit organization that promotes cultural understanding, acceptance and respect among children of the world.

Cele served on University of Arizona boards for the College of Humanities, the School of Architecture and the Steele Memorial Children’s Research Foundation. She also served on the boards of the Tucson Trade Bureau, Tucson/Mexico Sister Cities, the Tucson Local Development Corporation, the Industrial Development Authority, the Tucson Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, Angel Charity for Children, the Tucson Community Foundation and the Tucson Downtown Alliance.

Over the years her achievements have been recognized and honored with numerous awards including: the City of Hope Woman of the Year Award, the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce Founders Award, the University of Arizona College of Agriculture Distinguished Citizen Award, the YWCA’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Ernst & Young/INC. Magazine 1995 National Socially Responsible Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Cele was named a Doña de Los Descendientes del Presidio de Tucson, the group of women responsible for maintaining Tucson’s historic culture. Cele received a Crystal Apple from the Metropolitan Education Commission and was honored as one of the Four Women Who Helped Build Tucson by the Concerned Media Professionals.
In 2004, the America-Israel Friendship League honored her with a Cycle of Life Award. In the same year she was named Grand Marshal of the Tucson Rodeo Parade. In 2007 the Tucson Pima Public Library designated the Cele Peterson Arizona Collection, as an ongoing resource of local history.

As of February 2009 Cele is working on a youth apprentice program for the Rodeo Parade Committee, actively recruiting additions for the Cele Peterson Collection at the library, and encouraging the exchange of cultural ideas for children through the distribution of I Love You in Many Languages, a Kids International Neighborhood book. Cele is also continuing her involvement with a coalition of environmental groups to restore and preserve native growth and wildflowers on a centrally located urban lot.

Clearly Cele Peterson is committed to finding beauty, and changing the world. She often quotes her mother, “Look into that field out there. You’ll see whatever you want to see. You can see wildflowers and beauty or waste and junk.” Cele has always made a clear decision to look for beauty. In the process, she became a community legend.