Tucson mourns the loss of a fashion pioneer and philanthropist

Published: May. 6, 2010 at 10:28 PM MST|Updated: May. 13, 2010 at 11:39 PM MST
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By Leasa Conze - email

TUCSON, AZ (KOLD) - Cele Peterson who not only started a highly successful fashion business in Tucson  but who also had a hand in many local charities, died today at the age of 101.

Born in Pensacola, Florida, she moved to Bisbee at the age of three with her family in 1912.

She witnessed a lot of history in her early years growing up there, from the Mexican Revolution just across the border, to the strike by Bisbee copper miners, who were deported in cattle boxcars.

She attended the University of Arizona for a year, then went on to Sullins College in Bristal, Virginia, where she earned a bachelor's degree in political science.

Studying later at George Washington University, she met her future hustand, Tom Peterson.

The two were married in the Bisbee courthouse in 1934.  They raised five children, while she also opened her first store in Tucson, the Co-Ed Shop at the corner of Stone and Pennington.

Several years later, in 1937, she moved the store to East Pennington and renamed it Cele Peterson Shop.

That store weathered the Depression, World War 2 and a fire that injured 16 employees in 1956.

Undaunted,  she rebuilt the store that carried everything from fashionable gowns for hundreds of dollars apiece to cowgirl duds, denim and corduroy.

Word has it that Lady Astor and Hollywood starlets, Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor were among her famous clientele.

Over time as Tucson grew, Mrs. Peterson opened four shops in various shopping centers but she still held on to that downtown location until just about every other downtown business had moved out.

In the early 1980's she closed that store, when parking became a problem, and until just a few years ago, she continued to work at one of her other stores at 4811 East Grant.

While she juggled her family's upbringing and the growth of her local fashion empire, she also managed to devote countless hours to charities, having a hand in the birth of Casa De Los Ninos.

She offered a home for children in need to Casa's founder, Sister Kathleen Clark, and over time, helped that charity grow to become a model for other childrens' shelters around the country.

Other organizations also benefited from Cele Peterson's touch, the Children's Museum, the Arizona Theatre Company, and the Arizona Opera Company among them.

In 2004, the community tried to honor Mrs. Peterson in some small way by choosing her as the Grand Marshal of the Tucson Rodeo Parade.

Just last year, dozens of family members, community leaders and other well-wishers turned out to help her celebrate her 100th birthday.

The community mourns the loss of such a loving, caring and compassionate person who gave so much of herself to make Tucson the city it is today.