"Don't get so close to that ledge." These were the words my husband said to me three days ago as he grabbed my arm while I was taking photographs of the mountains in North Carolina. I didn't truly grasp how serious he was or how steep the drop off was from the side of the mountain. My protector. My husband. My love. In an instant, lives can change.
Donald and Jean Peterson were the only married couple aboard United Flight 93 on that fateful Tuesday morning in September. They were originally scheduled to fly on Flight 91, but arrived at the airport early and found they could catch an earlier flight and get on with their annual family vacation--- off to Yosemite National Forest. In an instant... lives can change.
Donald Peterson was retired and had been President of Continental Electric Motors Company, a company his grandfather had founded in Newark, New Jersey in 1922. Continental motors were used to provide back up water pressure in the World Trade Center. Donald earned a degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an MBA from Rutgers. Don was a member of the New Jersey Board of Higher Education. "Don was born into affluence and had lived a life of privilege. Divorce had brought about a painful life crisis for Don in the late 1970s, his son Dave Peterson said. In Jean, he seemed to find a kindred spirit."
Jean Hoadley Peterson was also retired as a registered nurse. She attended Duke University before transferring to Rochester University where she received her undergraduate degree in nursing. Later she earned her master's degree for education from Columbia University. Jean taught nursing and later became an emergency medical technician, riding in an ambulance that served Madison, New Jersey.
Both were divorced parents when they became acquainted through a Christian fellowship group in Madison, N.J. A mutual friend had set them up.
"I was in the eighth grade when Don arrived on our doorstep to meet her," Jennifer, Jean's oldest daughter said, laughing at the memory. "Basically, he never left."
Don and Jean married in 1984 and quietly devoted their lives to volunteer work in their church and within their community. Many had no idea how many people the Peterson's reached out to and helped. "They used their financial means to help a lot of people, but never showed they had means. They drove an average car, lived in a modest house for their town."
As born again Christians, Don and Jean devoted time and money to the neediest in their community. Don was devoted to America's Keswick, a Christian retreat and addiction recovery ministry. Don counseled men struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, staying in touch with many after leaving the center. Jean volunteered for Helping Hand Pregnancy Care Center. Jean was in charge of donations of clothing and diapers. She would take donated clothing home and washed them for needy mothers and their newborns. In 1999, Jean and her daughter Grace went on a medical mission to Ecuador assisting American doctors, distributing vitamins and performing medical checkups. Don loved to take people out to breakfast. Jean cooked, baby-sat and took people to doctors' visits.
They counseled couples with troubled marriages, provided character references in court, they also helped couples who needed a start and would loan money for mortgages and never charge interest. The Petersons led Bible studies and traveled with church friends to help a mission in Saint Lucia.
"They never talked about their lives. They talked about you because they cared to meet you, learn something about you and how to help you," said the Rev. Jim Loveland of Community Baptist Church in Neptune, N.J., where the couple had worshipped for about three years.
"So many people read the obituaries and said they'd had no idea that they had those degrees or that Don been a president of a big company."
While the Peterson's didn't live lavishly, they loved dining out, with Don seizing every opportunity to go out for breakfast. Jean seldom missed her regular stroll with a group along Spring Lake's boardwalk. They traveled. Two weeks before her death, Jean Peterson went to Wellesley, Mass., to hold her first grandchild, Jennifer Price's now-9-week-old daughter, Charlotte.
Nine years have passed since that dreadful day. Don and Jean left behind a blended family; he with three sons, she with three daughters and countless people whose lives were touched by their kindness and helping hand.
It's safe to say, I would have loved knowing these kind souls. From all the accounts I read, their belief and faith in God was strong. They lived humble lives despite all the wealth they had. No doubt there were warriors and leaders on that flight---someone once said there are no atheists in foxholes. I have no doubt Don and Jean were focused on a greater calling. Their focus and devotion to doing God's work was their calling.
I imagine in those last moments Don was comforting his wife and Jean was comforting her husband and yet they were most likely reaching out to others offering a message greater than anything the terrorists could unleash.
In an instant... lives were changed.
Two Lives Remembered,
1935 - 2001
Jean Hoadley Peterson
1946 - 2001
Among The Heroes: United Flight 93 and the Passengers and Crew Who Fought Back by Jere Longman
SF Flight 93 Memorial - Don Peterson
SF Flight 93 Memorial - Jean Hoadley Peterson
2012: I remember Louis J. Nacke II
2011: I remember Jeremy Glick.
2011: I remember Mark Bingham.2010: I remember Don and Jean Peterson
2009: I remember Hilda Marcin.
2008: I remember Toshiya Kuge.
2007: I remember Tom Burnett.
2007: I remember Deora Bodley.
2006: I remember Marion Britton.