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Peterson's influence shaped the lives of those around her

  • Yolonde Peterson listens during the ceremony dedicating the "Yolonde B. Peterson Performance Hall" at the Marion Cultural and Civic Center in 2018.

    Yolonde Peterson listens during the ceremony dedicating the "Yolonde B. Peterson Performance Hall" at the Marion Cultural and Civic Center in 2018.
    Holly Kee photo

By Renee Trappe
updated: 1/4/2022 7:10 AM

MARION -- Anyone who grew up in Marion or was involved in musical theater in southern Illinois is well aware of just who Yolonde Peterson was.

She's been described as a "legend."

"She touched many lives," said Diane Hughes.

Herrin Mayor Steve Frattini called her "an iconic statement of class."

She had a tough exterior, but inside, Yolonde Peterson was all heart, her great-niece said.

"She had to be tough," said Elizabeth Byassee Shore, who followed her great-aunt's footsteps and is the choir director at Marion Junior High School after 12 years of directing the high school choir.

"Everybody knows her tough exterior, but she had to be tough, working as she was in a man's world."

Thelma Yolonde Byassee Peterson, who taught music and directed the Marion Cultural and Civic Center for 40 years, died Dec. 28 at Heartland Regional Medical Center. She was 93.

The funeral service will begin at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in the Yolonde B. Peterson Performance Hall at the Marion Cultural and Civic Center, with Dr. Bob Dickerson and Rev. Alan Rhein presiding. Interment will follow next to her husband, in Rose Hill Cemetery of Marion.

Peterson taught for 40 years in the Marion schools, and started MHS's tradition of doing Broadway musicals in 1964 with "Oklahoma."

"She established the musical tradition here in Marion," said Shore, referencing the love of music that remains strong in Marion schools to this day.

"She was very professional, very meticulous and held very high standards," Shore added. "But we also got to see her loving side."

"We assume everyone my age and older had her as a teacher if they were in the choir."

Peterson's interest in Marion may have started in the schools but it didn't end there. She was musical director at First United Methodist Church in Marion for more than 43 years; taught private piano, organ, accordion and vocal lessons for 50 years; was a member of the Marion Cultural and Civic Center Board for 48 years; a member of the Friends Board of WSIU for six years; a member of Marion Fortnightly Club for 17 years and Delta Kappa Gamma for 60 years; was director of volunteers for the Arts Choir for four years; a member of the John A. Logan College Women's Health Conference Committee for 20 years; and a member of Marion Main Street for six years.

Yolonde Peterson was chairman of the Cultural and Civic Center board from 1973 until she resigned just a month ago, on Dec. 1, 2021. In a grand ceremony, the auditorium was named for her in 2018.

"I feel very privileged that my children knew her and knew her well," Shore said.

Yolonde Peterson married Guy "Pete" Peterson, and together they saw the world, Shore said.

"They truly loved each other and loved spending time with each other," she added. Yolonde loved Disney World, and because one of her former students worked for Disney, she and Pete got a tour in 1971 before the park officially opened.

The couple also organized private European trips for students in the 1970s.

When Pete died last October, Yolonde, always so sure of herself, got a little lost, Shore said. and her health began to decline

Peterson's most public project was the cultural and civic center, which began when then-Marion Mayor Robert Butler asked her to spearhead the reclamation of the abandoned Orpheum Theater as a cultural and fine arts center. In 1974 the first Marion Cultural and Civic Center opened; and in 1975 the grand opening was headlined by Will Rogers.

After 25 years of entertainment from the likes of Van Cliburn, Red Skelton, Debbie Reynolds, James Whitmore, and Reba McEntire, the theater was destroyed by arson in 1997. Peterson and Butler's wife, Louetta, drove the fundraising to replace it, and five years later Marion broke ground for the new $7 million state-of-the-art facility.

Yolonde Peterson fussed over the rebuilding of the theater like a mother hen.

"Mrs. P" left her mark on countless students, many who ended up following in her footsteps.

"She didn't have children of her own, so her students were like her children," said Shore, has organized an alumni choir to perform some of Yolonde's favorite songs at the funeral.

One of those is another local musical theater icon, Karen Sala.

Sala said Peterson "unknowingly" became her mentor.

"As a new music instructor at John A Logan College, I went to her musical productions and soaked in every aspect," said Sala. "I only hoped I could do half the shows of perfection that I saw in hers."

Sala said she admired Peterson and the two eventually became good friends.

Retired Marion teacher and MCCC Board Member Mary Ann Stotlar was a junior high student when she first came to know Peterson.

"I was blessed to be in the first Musical, Oklahoma, as Laurie," said Stotlar. "It truly has been a highlight in my life ... something I really never thought I could do."

Stotlar went on to earn a music minor to accompany her education degree and used those skill when she began teacher. Her own children participated in musicals.

"We have all been touched with her magic," she said.

Jared Garrison was only 4-years-old when Peterson cast him as a Show Child in Carousel.

"She deeply instilled in me the love of music," he said. "I have a degree in musical theater and have spent countless hours participating in professional and community theater because of her influence on me."

For Carol Alexander, Peterson's influence went beyond the scope of music.

"Mrs. Peterson gave me opportunity that basically changed the course of my life," she said. "She demanded everything from me which inspired me to figure out how to get there."

Alexander went on to perform lead operatic roles in New York City and served as the managing Director of Opera New York and Managing Director of The Academy of the Performing Artist, as well as a friend to Peterson.

Alexander said she never asked what she had always questioned ... "why in the world would you give a girl who couldn't even sing on pitch, the opportunity to do what she dreamed to do? But that was Yolonde Peterson."

Alexander said whenever she faces a challenge or doubts herself, she thinks of Peterson.

"I still see her standing at the back of the auditorium shouting, 'I CAN'T HEAR YOU!' and I smile and figure it out."

Alexander echoed the words of dozens of Peterson's former students and friends.

"She'll always be in my heart," she said. Peterson's influence was not limited to the students of Marion schools. She used her knowledge and influence to help bring musical theater to students in other districts.

"When I was teaching at Johnston City High School and we renewed the musical theater program, Yolande just showed up and got behind us, helping with funding, costumes, and giving us the benefit of her years of experience," said Holly Kee, now the Managing Editor of the Marion Republican. "She told me she did it 'for the kids ... because every kid needs the chance to play make believe. She was truly a treasure to the people of southern Illinois."

Holly Kee contributed to this article.

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