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Cele Peterson dies at 101
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Obituary: 'First Lady of Fashion'

Cele Peterson dies at 101

  • Peterson in 1968.
    Peterson family photoPeterson in 1968.
  • Cele Peterson about age 18.
    Peterson family photoCele Peterson about age 18.
  • Peterson, who grew up in Bisbee, about age 4.
    Peterson family photoPeterson, who grew up in Bisbee, about age 4.
  • Peterson and her husband, Tom, downtown in the early 1930s.
    Peterson family photoPeterson and her husband, Tom, downtown in the early 1930s.

Tucson's grand dame of fashion – Cele Peterson – died Thursday morning at 101.

She will be remembered by many people for her zest for life, compassion,  wisdom, courage, and unique outlook on what a sense of style really means.

Born Cecilia Fruitman in Pensacola, Florida on March 14, 1909, her family moved to Bisbee when she was around three years old. As a young girl she climbed to the top of high hills and peered through field glasses to see smoke from rifles as the Mexican Revolution was fought just across the border in Naco.

Her childhood mischief included tenderizing caliche in the back yard with dynamite swiped by her brother to create a garden for her mom. She also gave a teacher a dead rattler in a box of candy at Valentine's Day, causing him to faint dead away upon opening it, and on another occasion accidentally trapped her younger brother in an abandoned mine.

Her parents ran a mercantile store in Bisbee where the customers ranged from the elite mine owners' families to the men who worked the mines and the women who worked the brothels of the boomtown. Peterson worked in the family business and learned to appreciate style and fashion from her father, who was a tailor trained in Paris.

A lover of the arts from an early age, she won a state piano competition and got to perform on the stage of the Temple of Music and Art in Tucson as a young girl.

She grew up beautiful and smart, graduating high school and heading to the University of Arizona at 15. But her mother was less than thrilled with the thought of college boys dating her young daughter, and sent her east to Sullins College.

She transferred to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she befriended a group of friends working on Capitol Hill. Wanting to work with her friends, she enlisted the aid of Arizona congressman (later senator) Carl Hayden and got a job at the Library of Congress translating documents on Arizona's history from Spanish to English.

One of the formative experiences of her time at the Library of Congress was an extended stay in Mexico City, waiting for copying equipment that never arrived. But the downtime allowed her to drink in the culture of Mexico, and likely to plan her next move.

On her 100th birthday in 2009, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords presented Cele Peterson with a bound volume of the documents Peterson had translated 80 years before.

Instead of returning to D.C., Peterson moved back to Arizona where she started her first clothing shop in 1931. Called the Coed Shop, it was a risky decision for the middle of the depression, especially because she was targeting an upscale clientele.

But her philosophy was to create something that people desired. She designed a unique line of Southwestern apparel, "Station Wagon Togs," and the business flourished. She continued with special custom clothing designs that received national recognition.

Within three years, the store's name had changed to Cele Peterson's and the foundation of a local fashion empire had begun. The Cele Peterson stores spread out over the decades from downtown to locations in Phoenix, El Con, Tanque Verde, Casas Adobes, Foothills Mall, El Mercado, St. Philips Plaza and the current Crossroads Festival location.

Throughout the years she was a constant presence at the stores, seated at a desk in the front to greet customers as they came in and see to it that exceptional service was extended to all who walked in her door. As recently as late March, Peterson was at her store overseeing the operation.

In 1934 she wed Thomas A. Peterson, whom she'd met as a student at George Washington University. They married on July 4th at the Bisbee courthouse with typical humor, saying that they were both losing their independence. The pair remained a force in the community until Tom's death in 1989.

She ran the business while Tom invested the money in real estate around downtown and Tucson. Both understood that in the world of fashion, being current on a global stage in this unlikely desert oasis was key to the business' success. As he often said, it was "the rustle of the paper" that kept customers coming back for something fresh and new.

"Fashion is a way of life," Peterson often said. She understood the phrase went far beyond just meaning high couture. Cele saw style everywhere in the world around her and brought her global experience of life back to Tucson.

Locals and movie stars alike, including Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor, were customers.

From the days of the Coed Shop, buying trips by train to New York, and later other cities around the world gave both her business a competitive edge and fed her imagination. While on such trips she attended museums, arts performances and special events, translating those experiences upon her return to generate such local celebrations as Copper Days, and to nurture arts and culture in Tucson.

That said, her transplantation of ideas from different locations was never mere imitation. Cele Peterson always kept a clear vision of Tucson's unique beauty and sought to put a distinct Southwest spin on inspirations that may have come from other locales. She loved the desert as much as her community. She encouraged the cultivation of native plants all over the city, and generally sought to beautify the town wherever she could.

While never a politician, Peterson was a considerable voice of reason never afraid to pipe up when she saw an injustice or felt that the city or state was taking a wrong turn. She wrote letters to the editor, showed up at rallies and spoke to members of the City Council as she felt important issues dictated.

Even on the day of her recent stroke she was formulating a response to the controversial SB 1070 immigration law just enacted. She was a mover and a shaker – a ubiquitous presence at all events important in Tucson's unfolding history.

She pioneered as a local radio personality broadcasting directly from her store as early as the 1940’s. Her daily program called "Star of the Day" showcased special and ordinary people making a difference and continued until just a few years ago .

She helped found the Tucson Children's Museum and Casa de los Niños, and worked with Arizona Theatre Company and the Tucson Opera.

Cele Peterson was a mentor to many, encouraging all to find their bliss and pursue their dreams. And she was a patron saint to those most in need, particularly where issues involving children were at stake. Her involvement with Casa de los Niños in particular was an untiring affair of the heart.

She was a lifelong learner with a unquenchable thirst for knowledge about many things. And she was a witty storyteller in her own right, capping her life with a yet-to-be-published collection of stories from her fashion career titled "Undressed Women."

For almost a century, Cele Peterson has been a catalyst to creative, unselfish, community development, and a challenging voice for worthwhile change. Her passing leaves a hole in the heart of our city. She accomplished much in her long, storied life, and the seeds of reason, culture and understanding she so carefully nurtured will bear fruit for generations to come.

Cele Peterson is survived by her five children and their families, Thomas H. Peterson Jr., (Chachita), Eva Ann Peterson,(Jack Polidori), Frank R. Peterson, Katya Peterson, (Pierre Landau), Quinta Peterson, (Philip Rosenberg). There are 14 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren.

Plans for a memorial service have not been finalized at this time.

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