HJ/EDApril 10, 2006

George Peterson: service above self

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

George Peterson of Cokato is the prototype of what the Rotarians’ motto, “Service above self,” means, his Rotary co-members said.

Peterson was honored March 30 by a tribute from his fellow members at the Cokato Dassel Rotary for his 45 years of service as a charter member of the club. Not only did the Rotary District Governor, Dan Barnett of Bloomington, present Peterson a plaque, but also several guests from Rotaries in Buffalo, Willmar and other towns, plus his wife, Violet and son, Mark, paid tribute too.

“George is the same to Rotary, to me, as Kirby Puckett was to baseball,” said Russ Johnson of Cokato at the special dinner for Peterson in Daniel’s Family Restaurant.

Bruce Bohnsack of Cokato said Peterson, who grew up on a farm four miles northwest of Cokato, kept the corn stand up and running. “George was Mr. Corn Carnival,” he said.

“It was a huge commitment,” Bohnsack said, listing all the various projects Peterson headed for Rotary.

Peterson also was a long-time member of the Cokato Chamber of Commerce, Community Chest and American Legion. He was active in his church, and for 20 years was responsible for the Rotary calendar. He solicited advertising from local businesses, Bohnsack said.

“He set the bar kind of high,” Bohnsack added.

Peterson said the calendar was one of his favorite Rotary activities. “I met a lot of people and was always doing something good,” he said.

Another one of his favorites was the annual lutefisk supper, said Peterson, who graduated from the University of Minnesota in mortuary science.

Bohnsack said Peterson usually was in charge of making meatballs for the supper. “He was king of the meatballs,” Bohnsack said.

Peterson wanted the meatballs perfectly uniform. “By George,” Bohnsack said, accidentally making a pun on Peterson’s name, he’d tell you if the meatballs were too small or too large.

Peterson was the top rose bouquet sales person, helped start the Willmar Rotary, and led the state in a membership drive in which he added 17 new members to the Cokato Rotary, Bohnsack said.

Bohnsack recalled when Peterson volunteered the Cokato Rotary to host the district convention. “A deathly hush fell over the crowd,” who wondered if a small town such as Cokato, could handle such a large event, Bohnsack said.

The convention turned out very well, however. It was held in the high school, Bohnsack added.

Peterson was the sixth Rotary president and held other offices multiple times. His wife, Violet, son, Mark, and daughter, Elizabeth Ann, also were active in Rotary, Bohnsack said.

Peterson said he remembered when Rotary first started in Cokato, it had about 22 charter members. The group met in Cokato City Hall for many years, then met at the Cokato Town & Country golf club, and finally, Daniel’s Family Restaurant.

The Rotary expanded into Dassel in 1973, and by 1975 it had grown to 34 members, Bohnsack said.

Bohnsack also told about auctions the Rotary held in downtown Cokato. The street was closed for it at the four-way stop. Peterson was one of the top fund raisers for that also. “It was hard to say no to George,” Bohnsack said.

Later, when Peterson’s health prevented him from playing an active role in the corn carnival stand or other Rotary events, Peterson hired someone to take his place, instead of allowing the task to remain undone, Bohnsack said.

“I was sitting here wondering who you were talking about,” Peterson joked, after listening to the accolades from Bohnsack.

Current Rotary President Kelly Babekuhl told the gathering that Peterson served in the Army in New Guinea and the Philippines during World War II. He married Violet in 1948 and immediately they moved into the funeral home at 655 Broadway Ave. S. in Cokato. Peterson became a partner at the Swanson-Peterson Funeral Home Inc. in 1953, and purchased the home in 1970, Babekuhl said.

Peterson always demonstrated high ethical standards in his business, she added.

One of Rotary’s fund raising methods is to “fine” its members for happy family events celebrated, missed meetings and little quirks the members exhibit. Babekuhl told how Peterson had been “fined” once for mowing the lawn while he was wearing a tie, and when Peterson was in the furniture business, forgetting to remove his tape measure from his belt before a Rotary meeting.

Peterson always tried to attend Rotary meetings, even when he was out of town or on vacation, his son, Mark, also a funeral director, added.

Barnett, who teaches an ethics class at St. Mary’s University and is a 28-year Rotarian, said Peterson was the prototype Rotarian. Barnett told those gathered at the Peterson tribute that Rotary is in 168 countries and there are 1.2 million Rotarians world wide.

Rotary’s current international mission is to provide clean drinking water, Barnett said, pointing out how Rotary helped eliminate the polio scourge worldwide.

After Barnett presented the plaque, an emotional Peterson said “I did what anyone would do. It’s been a joy attending this club.”

Peterson usually concludes Rotary meetings with a humorous anecdote for the members. This meeting was no exception. He told a story about another dentist, not Bohnsack, he added, who had an annoying habit of walking out on the person beginning the program at Rotary meetings. At first, Peterson couldn’t figure out how to break the dentist of this bad habit.

Peterson waited until it was the dentist’s turn to present the program. He then orchestrated all the Rotarians at the meeting to walk out when the program began. “It cured it,” Peterson said.

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