By Helen West
Deanna Freer Peterson (’64, sociology) takes her dreams from rural Minnesota to Washington, D.C. — by way of the University of Minnesota and Harlem
Mid-20th century America is colored in our collective memory as a time both idyllic and tense — soda fountains and mash notes mingled with fraught racial relations, post-World War II euphoria mixed with Cold War–era anxiety. As a rural Minnesota farm girl, Deanna Freer Peterson knew little of either. She spent her days working long hours, first on her family’s farm in rural Minnesota, then studying at the University. After graduation, she moved to New York City, where she worked in Harlem — and came face-to-face with the era’s most pressing challenges.
“I was in Harlem when Malcolm X was killed," recalls Peterson of her year in Harlem as a social worker at this pivotal point in history. She also came face-to-face with the harsh realities of an impoverished neighborhood, the ugly influence of racism, and the tragic, if universal, fallout of family dysfunction. Neither her childhood in a small Minnesota town (population 350) nor her time at the University fully prepared her for the experience.
But once she got her bearings, Peterson thrived. She found meaning in helping underserved communities and satisfaction in being instrumental in positive change. She also fell in love with urban life and its eclectic diversity. She’s been an urban dweller ever since.
Along the way, Peterson also fell in love with attorney Neal Peterson. She worked as his assistant at the University — one of several jobs she worked to pay her way through school. (Hard work and dedication to meaningful projects have been hallmarks of her life.)
When she married Neal in 1965, this small town girl met with a whole new set of life experiences. Her husband had been a close friend of Hubert Humphrey and went to work for him during his vice presidency. The couple enjoyed the high-powered political life in Washington, D.C. They lived on Capitol Hill, renovated a townhouse, and attended official state parties. In short, they’d caught Potomac fever.
Looking back, Peterson sees her time at the University as pivotal to helping her transition to, first, the harsh realities of the inner city in New York City and, later, the fast-paced political life in Washington, D.C. “The University was so diverse. I met people from all over the world, people I wouldn’t have met at all, especially in my little town,"she recalls. That experience helped shape her worldview. “I found out that all people are pretty much the same — that they have the same wants and desires."
She became involved in the University of Minnesota Alumni Association in the 1980s out of her deep gratitude for her education, and she has been instrumental in planning alumni events and activities ever since. She works hard to make them memorable. “You have to make sure that it’s something people will feel bad about if they miss it," chuckles Peterson. “You have to make events worthwhile because there are so many interesting things to do in D.C. to begin with." In 1995 she was awarded the University’s Alumni Service Award.
Today Peterson lives in Arlington, Virginia, and keeps busy working, doing yoga, and seeing films at the theater down the street. (An avid movie fan, she hosted an Oscar party for her entire condominium building — all 79 units.) Her University connection is stronger than ever, stretching over those hundreds of miles. Most recently, she’s planning an estate gift to the College of Liberal Arts to enable other young people to follow their dreams to the U.
“One of the highlights of my life was having been able to attend the University and be part of it — to see the magnificent buildings and meet the diversity of people," says Peterson. “I want to make sure that scholarships are given to kids who need them, especially, maybe, farm kids."