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Toolin’ Around Town: Beloved Petaluma middle school teacher turns 101

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After sequestering at home for nearly two months, Olwen Peterson hopes to see everyday life return to normal as soon as possible.

Socially engaging, she misses her three-days-a-week shift volunteering at the Rohnert Park Library bookstore, visiting with her family, attending church services and teaching Sunday school. A retired teacher, who taught more than 25 years at Petaluma Junior High, Kenilworth Junior High and Rohnert Park Junior High, she’s never been a person who sits idle.

“The best thing about volunteering with Friends of the Library is that it keeps me moving,” said Olwen, who’s worked with the group for more than 40 years. “I do this and that, managing the surplus magazines, the recycle table and the special price section. And I keep walking. That’s what keeps me going, I walk a lot.

“I do sit down periodically,” she added, “when I need to rest.”

Last month, Peterson turned 101.

“My father always said, ‘Make the best of it,’ so I do and I seem to get along just fine,” she said. “Turning 101 wasn’t that big of a deal. My big birthday was last year. For my 100th birthday, I had a wonderful party in San Francisco, in the building where the Welsh Church used to be.”

Olwen was born, April 19, 1919 in Liverpool, England. During the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, while pregnant with Olwen, her mother became bedridden with the flu, an event that may have led to Olwen’s lifetime of immunity.

“I’ve never had the flu and was never absent one day while teaching,” said Peterson.

Her father, John Jones, immigrated to America. He was serving as pastor for the Welsh Presbyterian Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania, when he started planning for his wife, daughter and son Trevor, to come to America in 1927. Because Emma Jones didn’t want to live in Pennsylvania, saying it was too cold, John transferred to California and became pastor of the Welsh Presbyterian church in San Francisco, before sending for his family.

On their voyage to America, in September of that year, Emma told her children to be on the lookout for Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St.Louis. The children later learned Lindberg had crossed the Atlantic Ocean in May, four months earlier.

An avid reader, Olwen eagerly anticipated Christmas, when he grandparents sent her books from the old country. When she discovered the public library at 16th and Market streets, she started checking out books.

“I remember the librarian always had a pencil stuck in her hair,” she recalled. “When we checked out books, she’d take out the pencil and write the due date on each one. My favorite was, ‘Old Mother West Wind,’ by Thornton Burgess.”

After receiving her teaching credential from San Francisco State College, in 1941, Peterson moved to Petaluma, then with a population 8,000, where she accepted a position teaching eighth grade social studies and English at Petaluma Junior High.

“I taught junior high school, that’ll tell you a lot about me,” said Peterson, wryly. “If you don’t laugh when you’re teaching, you’d better get out of it. I’ve always said that eighth graders should be put out into a lovely pasture where they can do anything they want and grow up.”

She took a hiatus from teaching and returned to San Francisco in 1946 to marry Paul Peterson. The couple had two children, Nancy and Joan. In 1961, the Peterson’s moved to Rohnert Park where Paul sold real estate.

Olwen joined the faculty at Kenilworth Junior High in Petaluma.

When Rohnert Park’s population boom required new schools, Peterson transferred to the new Rohnert Park Junior High and taught there until retiring in 1978. Paul Peterson died in 1975. A long-time member of Faith Presbyterian Church, she had to give up her role as church organist, which began 75 years earlier in San Francisco, due to arthritis. She still teaches Sunday school, but during the current shelter-in-place orders, she’s learned to use Zoom technology to connect with church services and family.

With the library closed and social contact limited, Olwen keeps busy reading mystery novels and knitting lap robes for wheelchair-bound members of a care facility.

“The Friends of the Library is such a valuable resource,” she said. “We run the bookstore and hold book sales throughout the year. They are good moneymakers and all of it stays with the library.”

Retired from teaching for over 40 years, she’s a member of the California Retired Teachers Association, which boasts more than 300 Northern California retired teachers over the age of 100.

“So far, I’ve been very healthy,” she said. “My doctor said I’ve got such good genes I must have picked out my parents. All I seem to do when I go to the doctor is have a good laugh. I’m just very grateful that I have my health. As for my sense of humor, I’m going to hang onto it.”

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