John and Ellen Peterson were surprised Thursday when Mountain Heritage Days Coordinator Gwen Dunn named them grand marshals for the Sierra Historic Sites Association’s Sept. 16-17 fundraising event.
“They do so much for the community, for the kids,” Dunn said. “I know the kind of people they are. They’re wonderful, they’re loved, and everyone just adores them ... and they are this year’s grand marshals.”
The announcement was made at Fresno Flats Historic Village & Park. The surprised looks on the Peterson faces quickly transitioned to humility. Both have plenty of experience walking the Mountain Heritage Days parade route - Ellen, 65, with her Yosemite High Cadet Corp, and John, 67, as a volunteer firefighter with Station 12 in Oakhurst.
“We told Gwen that we will do whatever needs to be done,” Ellen said. “We hope to inspire others, to elicit more community involvement in Fresno Flats. Some of my high school students who pass by Fresno Flats daily didn’t know the history of the place, or all the work it took to get the historic buildings there.”
About the Petersons
Ellen recently retired after 40 years at YHS, where she taught current American affairs, government, U.S. law and justice, world history, and U.S. history.
Given her years of teaching, it comes as no surprise that Dunn, and her mother, Martha Hess (who was working on obtaining her GED), were two of Ellen’s students 35 years ago.
Ellen also coached girls basketball, advised the pep squad, House of Representatives, “S” Club, Explorers Post and coached the track team. She was the Cadet Corps adviser for five years, coached girl’s basketball for 10 years, softball for seven years, track off and on for 25 years, and cross country for 30 years. In recent years, John assisted her with cross country.
She was named Madera County Teacher of the Year in 1999, and has been named Teacher of the Year by YHS students numerous times. She was also named the 2014 Woman of the Year by the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce.
It was cross country that brought Ellen and John together. John would come out to the meets, a father cheering on his three children. Initially, Ellen thought John was married. About a year later, however, while chatting during a meet, John happened to mention some of the struggles he’s faced as a single parent.
“As a teacher, I kind of felt like I was parenting some of the kids,” Ellen said. “John and I already had our faith in common, and I adored his children.”
Their first date was attending church together. Within three months, they were married on Sentinel Dome under a full moon. That was 21 years ago, and they still retain that glow, often holding hands as they walk shoulder-to-shoulder.
John relocated to the Mountain Area with his three children 32 years ago. He slowly worked his way out of being a full-time optometrist into a volunteer firefighter.
“I was on the front line of the Serpa Fire,” John said, “and could be busy every day because the state is so flammable ... and the season is only half over.”
“Things have changed a lot since I was a kid,” John added. “I grew up on a ranch, and when we saw smoke, we grabbed a burlap bag to beat out grass fires, and carried water in a backpack to water down hot spots. Now if there’s a fire, sheriffs tell everyone to evacuate. They don’t want community members not trained in fire fighting helping out.”
The couple just returned from an event especially dear to Ellen’s heart - the Track and Field Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, known as Track Town USA.
“It was a track coach’s dream,” Ellen said. “We were with runners the whole time. We saw former Clovis High standout Jenna Prandini qualify for the Olympics in the 200 meter dash. The crowd went crazy over Jenna. There were “Run Jenna” tee-shirts everywhere because she graduated from the University of Oregon.”
Besides track and field, the Petersons share a love of backpacking for days-on-end.
“We’ve seen a lot of Yosemite, but there’s a lot of Yosemite we haven’t seen,” John said. “There’s 800 miles of trails and it will take us awhile to see it all.”
They are equally passionate in their desire to serve. While John is off battling blazes, Ellen will continue as a Cadet Corps volunteer, marching with the group at the Veteran’s Day Parade in Fresno.
They also hope to become more involved with Fresno Flats after Heritage Days. Future visitors may spot John, who is good with gardening, helping with the grounds - and Ellen, given her love of history, may be dressed in period garb as a docent giving a guided tour.
“Whatever Fresno Flats needs, whatever YHS needs, whatever the community needs, we will volunteer in any capacity to help,” Ellen said.
As grand marshals, the Petersons, wearing their sashes, will represent Fresno Flats at upcoming community events.
When it comes to dressing for the occasion, once Ellen heard they would be riding in the back of a pink Cadillac during the parade, an image popped into her head - Elvis.
As though reading her mind, parade coordinator and long-time friend, Sandy Brinley said, “... and not Elvis. Western garb only.”
Another thought popped into the mind of the mischievous Ellen: “I guess I better not dress as a garter girl or grub gulch granny, and I won’t be wearing those fishnet stockings any time soon.”
A Mountain Area favorite event - The 20th Annual Mountain Heritage Days parade starts at 10 a.m., Sept. 17.
Volunteers are needed to help out with this event, as well as at Fresno Flats throughout the year.
The next planning meeting for Heritage Days is 5:30 p.m., Aug. 11, in the Fresno Flats Library building. Future meetings, at the same time and location, are: Aug. 25, Sept. 1, 8; and Sept. 14 at 6 p.m.