Once in a while, honor falls upon the right man at the right time.
For Richmond County’s Elijah Peterson, that perfect alignment was a rainy February night in Salisbury when many came from near and far to witness Livingstone College pay tribute to Peterson by inducting him into the college’s Hall of Fame.
A 1956 graduate of Livingstone College, Peterson is a former educator, child’s advocate, community leader and political activist. For the past 16 years, he has served as chairman of the board for Richmond County Community Support, which serves Richmond, Montgomery and Moore counties.
Peterson was among 14 distinguished recipients being honored at the 12th annual Celebration of Livingstone College Leaders Banquet under the theme, “Share Your Love,” benefiting the United Negro College Fund.
The tribute “recognizes successful leaders for their undying commitment and dedication to others,” said Jimmy Jenkins Sr., Livingstone College president. “This award is being bestowed upon individuals who have given tirelessly of themselves as they serve their communities and/or professions, and have demonstrated the qualities of a servant leader.”
Peterson’s recognition drew a large crowd of supporters to the Event Center in Salisbury including Richmond County Sheriff James Clemmons Jr., former school board chairman Bruce Stanback, and a team of Peterson’s students from Charles Drew High School in Madison, where he taught 52 years ago.
Carrie Peterson, his wife of 54 years; their three daughters, Clairice, Valerice and Laurice; and his brother, Robert; as well as other family members and friends were there to witness this special occasion in Peterson’s life. He was the only recipient to receive a standing ovation.
Prior to the event, Peterson was the guest of honor at a reception at a local hotel, where he was showered with kind and loving words.
The honoree gives credit to his parents, Mary and Pearlie Peterson, for instilling in him a moral obligation to serve others. “They also modeled their behavior in accordance with the belief that real servants finish their tasks, fulfill their responsibilities, keep their promises and complete their commitments,” he said. “They don’t leave a job half done, they don’t quit when they get discouraged. They are trustworthy and dependable.”
He also credits Livingstone College, where he entered as a freshman at age 16, for providing the foundation for his educational and professional life. After graduating from Livingstone College with a bachelor’s in mathematics, Peterson continued his education at North Carolina A&T State University, where he earned a Master of Science degree in 1961, and a Master of Arts degree in chemistry in 1965.
He was awarded a special certification in physics by the University of North Carolina in 1962 and was one of the first to be selected for certification to teach modern physics. This curriculum was designed to prepare students to understand research being performed by the NASA Space Program.
Every year during his 13 years of teaching physics, Peterson was invited to attend seminars in order to receive updates on the successes and failures of each space launch.
As an educator, Peterson served as a teacher and principal. He taught math, chemistry and physics in three different high schools including Peabody in Troy, Booker T. Washington in Reidsville and Charles Drew.
For 26 years, he served as principal of five different schools including Cameron Morrison State Training School for Boys in Hoffman and Samarkand Manor for Girls in Eagle Springs.
The accolades bestowed upon Peterson are as long as his distinguished career. Highlighting the list are Principal of the Year in 1986 and North Carolina Citizen of the Year in 2012 by Omega Psi Phi Fraternity; although he is a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity.
Additionally, many of his awards came through service appointments. In 1976, North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt appointed Peterson to his Advocacy Council on Children and Youth, where he served for 26 years. In 1989, Gov. Jim Martin appointed him chairman of the same and he held that position for eight years.
At that time, the Daily Journal wrote, “Pete Peterson believes in people and he believes in children. We commend Governor Martin for appointing him as North Carolina’s top child advocate.”
Under his leadership, Richmond County Community Support Center has funded services in excess of $8 million.
“We are elated that you are receiving honors befitting the great work that you have done in our community and communities throughout North Carolina,” wrote the executive board and staff of Richmond County Community Support Center to Peterson. “We, too … honor you and give you the highest recognition to all that you have accomplished.”
He has also served as chairperson of the Eighth Congressional District of the N.C. Democratic Party; state chairman of the Black Leadership Caucus; on the board of trustees for Montgomery Community College; is a life member of the NAACP; and trustee board chairman for Mt. Zion United Church of Christ.
In his unselfish and humble nature, Peterson did not accept full credit for his accomplishments. “I am extraordinarily grateful for all the encouragement and support I have received from the wide range of individuals I interacted with while carrying out my life’s work. In the words of the English poet, John Donne, ‘No man is an island.’”