Dorothy Peterson of Peterborough, former first lady of New Hampshire, dies at 95

  • Dorothy Peterson of Peterborough, a prominent volunteer and philanthropist and wife of former New Hampshire Gov. Walter Peterson, died at the age of 95 on Feb. 12. COURTESY PHOTO—

  • Dorothy Peterson of Peterborough, a prominent volunteer and philanthropist and wife of former New Hampshire Gov. Walter Peterson, died at the age of 95 on Feb. 12. COURTESY PHOTO—

  • Walter and Dorothy Peterson COURTESY PHOTO—

  • Dorothy Peterson celebrates her 95th birthday. Courtesy

  • Dorothy Peterson, center, with her family at the dedication of the Dorothy Peterson Garden at Monadnock Community Hospital in 2011. COURTESY PHOTO—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 2/17/2022 5:44:04 PM
Modified: 2/17/2022 5:43:54 PM

Former New Hampshire first lady and avid volunteer and philanthropist Dorothy Peterson died Saturday at the age of 95, leaving a legacy of service in her beloved hometown of Peterborough.

Peterson died at her home at RiverMead in Peterborough, a retirement community where she had lived since 2011.

“We loved her from the bottom of the earth to the stars,” said her son, Andy Peterson of Peterborough. “There’s no way to contain in words what she meant to me.”

Dorothy was the wife of Walter Peterson, a prominent Peterborough citizen who served as governor of New Hampshire from 1969 through 1973. Both Dorothy and Walter were deeply involved with the fabric of Peterborough, and Dorothy remained an active and avid volunteer into her 90s.

Her daughter, Meg Peterson of Plymouth, said her mother was a public figure, but didn’t relish that life.

“While she was part of every good thing in town, she never sought credit, but she worked very pragmatically and thus she was able to accomplish a lot without being at the forefront or drawing attention, which made her well suited for the life she was given, as the wife of a very charismatic public figure,” Meg Peterson said.

“I look at her as an example to aspire to, because she’s not a person who ever wanted to diminish her good work by getting credit for it,” Andy Peterson said. “She didn’t want to be seen or recognized in the efforts that she applied herself to, and it was about making a difference and accomplishing something, and not about her getting credit for it.”

However, many of the people and organizations who worked with Dorothy over the years are happy to give that credit to her. She was an active supporter of a plethora of organizations across the state, including the New Hampshire Lung Association, Monadnock Family Services and New Hampshire Public Radio.

Among her notable accomplishments was serving the first woman president of the Monadnock Community Hospital Board of Trustees in 1978. She also served as president of the Peterborough Historical Society, now known as the Monadnock Center for History and Culture, as well as on the board for the Anna Philbrook Children’s Foundation.

Recently, she served as an honorary chair for the campaign for the Peterborough Town Library renovation project. Audrey White of Peterborough, a longtime friend of Dorothy’s, invited her to participate.

“She had a reputation as an intelligent, caring woman, and she loved this community, and she loved the library. She was generous in every way to this community,” White said. “She was a pleasure to work with and a pleasure to know, and I admire her immeasurably.”

Laura Gingras, vice president of philanthropy and community relations at Monadnock Community Hospital, called Dorothy an “incredible leader” who remained a staunch advocate of the hospital long past her tenure as board president. She was a member of the Parmelee Society, which honors individuals who included the hospital in their will or estate planning, and served as an honorary chair when the hospital was raising funds to build a new emergency department.

The hospital named one of their outdoor gardens in Dorothy’s honor in 2011.

“I was a young professional when I first met Dorothy, and watching how she handles herself taught me a lot,” Gingras said. “We’re so lucky that she lived in this community. She gave so much, and she was passionate about so many causes. It seemed that Dorothy was part of every good thing that happened in this community, whether it was being a volunteer, contributing or just being an advocate.”

Dorothy also was part of the first major capital campaign to raise $1.5 million to support the Peterborough Historical Society.

“Dorothy was the leader, and we wouldn’t have done it without her. It just wouldn’t have happened,” said Monadnock Center for History and Culture Executive Director Michelle Stahl. “She was a great organizer, and she could build teams of people, because she grew up in Peterborough and knew everyone.”

Stahl said both Dorothy and Walter Peterson are interwoven into the fabric of many town organizations.

“When they saw a community need, they would do whatever they could to make it happen, and that’s why she was involved with so many things,” Stahl said.

Stahl said the Monadnock Center has a historic photograph of one of Dorothy’s earliest philanthropic efforts, when the people of Peterborough raised money to buy an ambulance for Peterborough, England. Dorothy was part of the fund drive, and can be seen as a teenager posing with the ambulance in front of the Town House in 1940.

“She was a volunteer from childhood, all throughout her life,” Stahl said.

Longtime family friend Ernie Loomis, a retired major with the New Hampshire State Police, said he got to know the Peterson family when he was assigned to newly elected Gov. Walter Peterson as his chief of security following the 1968 election. At the time, Loomis was living in Greenfield with his young wife and family, and said he was often scolded by Dorothy to get home and spend more time with them.

“Right from the get-go, she was my guiding familial mentor,” Loomis said. He recalled Dorothy meeting his newborn daughter, who — well before she should have been able to developmentally — managed to roll over in front of her.

“She kept her charm and good humor, and told me, ‘You’re going to have to watch that one close,’ ” he said.

Loomis said Dorothy was always attuned to what was going on around her and sharp as a tack. He recalled one instance when he and Walter Peterson had stepped outside of their car while on a trip, and Dorothy had remained inside, listening to Loomis’ police scanner. When the three resumed their trip, at one point Dorothy alerted Loomis that a car they had just passed was stolen, having identified it from a description sent out over the scanner.

“I was able to call a trooper just down the road, and he was able to apprehend the vehicle with the bad guy at the wheel. And all the credit goes to Dorothy Peterson. She was a remarkable lady in many ways, and I will never forget her,” Loomis said.

Loomis said while Walter Peterson was in office, Dorothy’s official codename was “Lace,” but he often referred to her as “Lady One,” a nickname that persisted well past his time as their security officer and into their lifelong friendship.

Loomis said Dorothy was always genteel, but also kind, and recalled returning to the Bridges House, the governor’s mansion, after a week-long stint of traveling. Loomis was staying overnight, but had exhausted his clean wardrobe, and Dorothy offered to do laundry to ensure he had something clean for the next day.

“Can you imagine, the first lady of New Hampshire, offering to do your laundry? Well, I can, because I know she did it,” Loomis said. “She was really something.”

Meg Peterson said the thing she remembers most about her mother is her wisdom. Dorothy often had an aphorism for any given moment, she said. Sometimes, they were funny — “When all else fails, read the directions,” or “The phone is not for chatting” — and sometimes more serious — “Your right to swing your fist ends where the other person’s nose begins.”

“She had all sorts of things like that, that were so wise, yet so simple,” Meg Peterson said. “She was always very measured in what she did and would always consider how it might affect others. She took great care to always take that into consideration.”

“She really believed she was a very fortunate person who had certain strengths and aptitudes, who wanted to give back, and was a person who did so in abundance,” Andy Peterson said. “I do think she discovered the secret of living a joyful life was to be a giving person.”

Andy Peterson said he was glad to be able to have his mother with him for so much of his life, and that as her health waned at the end, Dorothy told him how satisfied she was with her life.

“She didn’t feel there was anything left to do. She didn’t have to make up for anything or have any huge gnawing regrets,” Andy Peterson said. “That itself is just a tremendous advantage, that she was able to come to this age and feel that she was ready to move on to the next stage, and she was calm and in a place of feeling complete within herself or with her life.”

Meg Peterson said one of the last things her mother conveyed to her was her pride in her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“When she was starting to fade, she said, ‘Don’t be sad. I’ve lived a full and rich life and I’m so proud of the family your father and I have created,’ ” she said.

A funeral service is planned for family and local friends at All Saints Episcopal Church Feb. 26. Burial services will take place at a later time.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in Dorothy’s honor to Monadnock Community Hospital, Monadnock Family Services or the Monadnock Center for History and Culture.

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