Teacher Extraordinaire

It has been 40 years since teacher-coach-mentor Ellen Peterson came to Yosemite High School - the year it opened its doors to students in 1976. Peterson will retire at the end of the current school year - the last of the original teaching staff hired for the school.

Looking around her classroom one can’t miss the large framed photos of the cross country teams she has coached over the past 30 years. Other photos and memorabilia leave no doubt that she’s a Dodger fan.

On one counter sits her collection of YHS yearbooks - every one from each of the 40 years since the school opened.

“Student’s love to look at pictures of their moms and dads,” Peterson said. “They like to open them up and take pictures of the pictures.”

In the 1976 yearbook, there are construction photos of the familiar hexagonal shapes of YHS’s classroom buildings, and bleachers made possible by community donations being constructed with students assisting at what is now Badger Stadium and Raupp Field.

At age 24, Peterson had completed work at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for her teaching credential and was teaching in Atascadero. Some of her colleagues were submitting their resumés to teach at a brand new high school in Oakhurst - Yosemite High School.

She decided to update her resumé and apply. The deadline for submitting an application was fast approaching so she decided to get in her car, pick up the application and fill it out on the spot.

She arrived at a high school in Oakdale (outside Modesto) and soon realized she drove to the wrong town. The school secretary in Oakdale was so impressed by the young woman she made a call to Yosemite High, told the school secretary a candidate would be arriving late that night, and that the school should strongly consider interviewing her.

The YHS secretary said she would tack the application on the door and if the young teacher filled it out and slipped it under the door, “we’ll accept it as on time.” Peterson, then Ellen Jackson, got her interview ... and a new job.

“Everyone wanted to work here (YHS),” she said. “So many had applied and I had no ‘stand out’ qualities.” She makes an analogy to what she was told when she applied for a summer job at Disneyland, “Disneyland, my dear, everyone wants to work at Disneyland.”

“We (teachers) all qualified for food stamps,” she said, thinking back to the early years at YHS. “Salaries were about $9,000 a year. We were paid nothing for coaching. Bob Stern, my guardian angel, gave some of us second jobs at the Pines Resort.” Others worked for what is now Pizza Factory.

In those early yearbooks, there are plenty of photos of a young, blond female social science teacher. That teacher is Ellen Jackson. She taught current American affairs, government, U.S. law and justice, world history, U.S. history, and coached girls basketball. She also advised the pep squad, House of Representatives, “S” Club, Explorers Post and coached the track team.

Her commitment of time and energy to her students did not ebb after that first year. Peterson has been the Cadet Corps adviser for five years. She coached girl’s basketball for 10 years, softball for seven years, track off and on for 25 years, and cross country for 30.

She loves the one-on-one intensity of wrestling and has served for many years as a scorekeeper at both YHS wrestling matches and basketball games.

In this last year, Peterson brought her grandfather’s desk to use in her classroom to remind her of his emotional strength after he lost everything except some furniture in the Great Depression and she, along with Kellie (Craig) Solomon, decided “Live Badgerously” would be a fitting theme for her final year. They had T-shirts made and students and staff embraced the slogan.

Friends for 30 years

Names of former students and colleagues roll easily off Peterson’s tongue and she has kept in contact with many of them. One of those former students, Solomon, joined the faculty at YHS 20 years ago. She and Peterson have been close friends for 30 years.

“Ellen was my high school teacher and, like decades worth of other students, I instantly fell in love with her kind disposition, profound wisdom and wild sense of humor,” Solomon said.

Solomon explained she became a diabetic in her junior year at YHS and thought she was alone in her struggle - until Peterson shared she too was diagnosed with diabetes at the same age.

“Ellen told me that this may be one of the best things that could ever happen to me,” Solomon said. “The advice seemed crazy at the time but our life-long friendship was born out of that illness and, 30 years later, her presence in my life has been an immeasurable blessing.”

It was Peterson’s love for her job that inspired Solomon to become a teacher.

“Ellen has been my mentor and team teacher for 20 years - in that time, her teaching philosophy has been abundantly clear: relationships first and curriculum second,” Solomon said. “From my own time in her class, to watching my children share the joy of being her students, she is more than a teacher - she’s an adored member of our family. She is the most loving person that I will ever meet and her timeless influence encourages me to enjoy life and honor others ‘The Peterson Way.’”

“One word I would use to describe Mrs. Peterson is ‘dynamic,’” said Julie (Miner) Davidson, a 1997 YHS graduate. “Her smile is pure joy. Whenever I think about Mrs. Peterson, I also think about her family - John, Jherysa, Elisha and Isaiah and how lucky they are to call her wife and mom.”

Former YHS student Kent Byers paid tribute to Peterson during the Nite on the Town concert at YHS in March.

“Upon the opening of Yosemite High School 40 years ago this community was blessed to have an amazing teacher join in the education of our young people,” Byers said. “Thirty-nine years ago, I was just one of what would eventually become thousands of students so fortunate to have her as a teacher, installing in us all a passion for knowledge as well as guiding us toward becoming better citizens.”

Cassi Ross (class of 1981), now the softball coach at Riverbank High School, played softball for Peterson for three years.

“We won the section championship my senior year, and although I don’t remember much about the games, what I do remember is what Ellen taught us - the scores of the games are not important - what’s important are the relationships you build with people along the way,” Ross said. “If I can be 1/16 of the teacher and coach she is, I’ll consider myself doing OK.”

Far beyond facts and figures

Back when YHS was a fledgling high school, teachers were designated as advisers for specific families and home visits were expected. Peterson was assigned to be an adviser to the Bilderback family who had two students - Barbara and Bill.

“I was a nerdy kid, which I always thought meant I had to favor math and science,” said Bill Bilderback, a Supervising Deputy Attorney General for the California Department of Justice. “Mrs. Peterson taught me, with her boundless enthusiasm, that history and civics are areas that are equally worthy of interest and attention ... I carried that early love of civics to college, then law school, then to a career as a prosecutor.”

“When I was in school the classrooms were open, no walls,” said Vicki (Smith) Ressler, who was in Peterson’s U.S. history class in 1978. “You could wave to your friends across the way. We had pay phones instead of cells. The gym was not quite finished so we had to practice volleyball outside under the oak trees. We would slip on acorns and sticks, which was pretty funny. Ellen has never changed. She has as much energy now as she did then.”

Peterson was named Madera County Teacher of the Year in 1999, and has been named Teacher of the Year by students at YHS numerous times. She was named the 2014 Woman of the Year by the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce.

She has also been honored for her coaching skills. Peterson was league Coach of the Year twice in softball, five times in basketball, and was a California Track & Field Honoree in 1990. She has been named cross country Coach of the Year in the Central Section, for D-III and D-IV.

Since taking over the school’s cross country program in 1986, Peterson has led the girls team to 24 league titles. The boys team has finished first or second in league for 29 consecutive years.

Peterson’s conversations reveal a deep-rooted religious conviction.

“It was all God that brought me to Oakhurst,” she said.

With a granddaughter, Maile Peterson, having decided to attend YHS in the fall Peterson will still have plenty of opportunities to spend time on the campus. She and her husband of 20 years, John, have run the clocks at YHS girls and boys basketball games for 20 years and will continue to do that, donating the pay they receive back to YHS to benefit student athletes.

“Yosemite High School, the students, and staff have given me far more than I could ever repay,” said a reflective Peterson. “There is no place like it, and nowhere I would rather have spent the past 40 years. I will spend my retirement in volunteering there, and cheering for my grandchildren and all Badgers. John and I will continue to Live Badgerously - there’s nothing better.”

See Dr. Bill Atwood’s column.