WILLCOX Favorite Son and Daughter Award

Mary E. Peterson

Favorite daughter 2017 - Mary E. Peterson

Photo: Ainslee Wittig/Arizona Range News

Willcox Favorite Daughter Mary Peterson, center, poses for a photo with her parents, John and Betty.


The 2017 Favorite Son and Daughter awards Arizona Range News article available HERE

Before beginning his presentation, Reno called Peterson, a 1994 Willcox High School graduate, “a shining example of Willcox’ best and brightest making a difference in the world.”

Peterson’s family moved to Willcox when she was 3 and grew up here with a brother two years younger and sister six years younger.

“Also serious as a child, (Peterson) played by the rules and rarely defied their parents, except for that one time washing dishes with sis and swaying to some favorite musical numbers,” Reno said. “Dad interrupted with something else to do, and our hero impertinently said, ‘Shut up.’”

Peterson “lived in a construction zone” much of her young life as the family built their own home on the north side of Willcox. Reno went on to say that Peterson had to help her family “beat the monsoons by shingling the roof of that house on her 14th birthday.”

Peterson went to Japan the summer of her 16th birthday. When she came home and took her driving test, her mother said she almost failed for driving on the wrong side of the road.

As a teen, Peterson had foster children peers running around the house, learning about their issues and how to help.

“That, and the construction zone, helped with her vision to understand that what you see may not be the complete deal, whether it be a building or a person,” Reno said.

Peterson still found time to do WASA, academic decathlon competitions, host teen panels on teen issues, display a cool sense of humor and graduate among the top of her class.

She was also known in school for her role in WASA message theater’s play “Alky” as a bullied, innocent teen. Reno said, “She made a silly role become serious and inspired many who related to the victim with helpful answers to bullying.”

Peterson “took the education and values she had developed in her childhood and magnified them,” Reno told the audience. “After graduating from U of A and working for the state Governor’s Division of Drug Policy, she gave up her well-paying job to work with several like-minded young women of faith in developing and running a home where pregnant women of the Phoenix area could safely have their babies (Maggie’s Place). This enormous project was started without funding or major support and remains privately funded through donations and grants.”

Even the home itself was built through volunteer labor that Peterson helped organize.

“The unique thing about this home for the needy is that the staff (she and her co-workers) lived in the facility, sharing duties and finances with each other and the clients, with the philosophy that ‘in order to truly serve the poor, you must live like the poor,’” Reno said.

When she left in 2013, after giving up her young adult life to serve others, there were three Maggie’s Places in the Phoenix area, another in Cleveland, and another in Idaho.

“She was a key figure in helping to bring 600 children into the world, thanks to offering a choice to their mothers,” Reno told the audience.

Peterson went on to pursue a master’s degree in theology of marriage and families at the John Paul Institute in Washington, D.C., on the campus of the Catholic University of America, and to work as a consultant for Heartbeat International, the modern pregnancy help movement.

Peterson returned to Willcox in 2016 “to live and to help, such as revitalizing the St. Vincent de Paul store, serve as board consultant to WASA and assist her younger sister, Melinda’s, philanthropic passion, the Small Town/Big Dreams organization that memorializes their late brother, Matt,” Reno said.

Peterson now lives in Tucson, spending time in her boyfriend’s unique vintage thrift store in between HeartBeat International travels that recently took her from Romania to Granville, Mo., and now back to Willcox.

Calling Peterson to the stage, Reno said that Peterson is the daughter of John and Betty Peterson, “and — if my information is correct here — conqueror of Mount Fuji in Japan and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.”

When it came her turn to speak, Peterson said she wanted to publicly apologize for telling her father to shut up, drawing laughter from the audience.

Peterson said that during her college education, there was a class where they talked about the concept of an “ideal community,” such as a smaller population, connectedness to the land, as well as small family run-businesses.

“I thought to myself, ‘I know that town,’” Peterson said, explaining that she realized they were describing Willcox.

Peterson described Willcox as both an honor and a joy to grow up in, and with which to still have connections.