Elijah Peterson inducted into Livingstone hall of fame
Sweating while working long, hard hours on a farm wasn’t appealing to Elijah Peterson, the 9th of Pearlie and Mary Peterson’s 11 children. No matter it was his father’s farm and he probably wouldn’t have to work quite as hard as his older siblings had.
So in 1952 after graduating from high school at age 16, Peterson packed his bags and left his Council, N.C., hometown for Livingstone College.
“There was a dropout prevention program when I was growing up called farming,” Peterson quipped during an interview. “If you didn’t go to school that’s what you did. I loved school, and I didn’t want to farm all of my life.”
And he didn’t. Peterson spent nearly 40 years in education — 13 as a teacher and 26 as a principal. He’s made a difference in the lives of countless people, and last month about 50 former students, relatives and friends watched as he was inducted into the Livingstone College Leaders Hall of Fame.
Held at The Event Center on Webb Road, the 12th Annual “A Service in Celebration of Livingstone College Leaders” Hall of Fame banquet was successful.
“This year’s banquet was one of the best we’ve had recently,” said Livingstone College UNCF Director Deborah Johnson. “Our 15 inductees are exemplary leaders in their fields, which range from education to ministry to broadcasting and public speaking, have worked tirelessly in their communities, strongly support Livingstone College and are most deserving of the recognition.”
Peterson was the second child in his family to attend college. Older brother Herman was already at Livingstone when he arrived but withdrew after being drafted. After graduating from Livingstone in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, Peterson went on to earn a master’s degree in math from North Carolina A&T State University in 1961 and a second master’s degree in chemistry, also from A&T, in 1965.
Several Peterson siblings followed their brothers’ lead and went to college, including Dr. Frances C. Peterson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Livingstone in 1961. The community leader, college professor and former Fulbright Scholar has established a scholarship in her name at Livingstone that provides money for tuition, room and board, institutional fees, books, supplies, personal computers and opportunities for cultural leadership development.
Dr. Peterson couldn’t attend the UNCF/Hall of Fame Banquet because she was caring for a sick sibling in New York. But she was there in spirit.
“I’m so proud of my brother and all that he has accomplished throughout the years,” Dr. Peterson said. “Even though he’s blind now, that hasn’t stopped him from helping others or letting his light shine. He’s still chairman of a community center that serves three counties and has funded services in excess of $8 million during his 16-year tenure as chairman. He’s truly been a blessing in our family and to countless young people.”
Peterson said his sight began declining about 11 years ago, and he became legally blind in 2010. Even so, he’s determined to live life to the fullest.
“I don’t have a choice in liking it or not,” he said. “I just like and enjoy life. My father was an entrepreneur back when most black people could only work for others, and our mother was a teacher. They instilled in us to always give God the glory for our lives, so despite my sight challenges I feel honored and blessed, and I was truly touched that so many people came to support me at the banquet.”
Peterson taught math, chemistry and physics and was known for his creative and innovative approaches that helped many students once intimidated by those subjects grasp and ultimately master them. Two students from his first year of teaching 57 years ago and 10 students from Charles Drew High School in Madison, N.C., where he taught 52 years ago, attended the banquet.
“I’ve run into a number of students over the years who’ve said ‘I’m glad you insisted I stay in school, etc.’ ” Peterson said. “Some of them have varying degrees, including Ph.D.s in engineering and MBAs. Some are airline pilots or have other important positions and many are doing well. Over the years they’ve invited me to a lot of events, and I’ve gone when I could.”
Peterson lives in Rockingham with his wife of 54 years, Carrie Watkins Peterson. Their son Maurice is deceased, and they have three daughters, Clairice Brown, Valerice Peterson and Laurice Peterson.
Peterson has always been passionate about helping young people overcome barriers and reach their potential. In the 1970s he was appointed by former Gov. Jim Holshouser, Jr. to the state’s Advocacy Council on Children and Youth. He served on the council for 26 years and in 1989 was appointed chairman in by former Gov. Jim Martin.
Over the years Peterson has received numerous awards, including Richmond County (N.C.) Schools Principal of the Year in 1986 and North Carolina Citizen of the Year in 2012. The latter honor was bestowed by Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., though Peterson is a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.