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Tucson’s first lady of fashion turns 100

Still going strong, giving to worthy causes

Tucson's first lady of fashion, Cele Peterson, turns 100 years old Saturday.

Tucson's first lady of fashion, Cele Peterson, turns 100 years old Saturday.

Back in the early 1930s, when Cele Peterson opened her first clothing store in Tucson, she made a buying trip to New York. She brought along a friend to help her drive across the country.

Actually, two friends.

“I grew up in Bisbee,” Peterson says. “I never learned to swim. I never learned to ride a bicycle. But I did learn how to ride a horse and how to shoot a gun. I had a little gun on me because, after all, we were driving to New York.”

Since it was illegal to carry a firearm in New York and she didn’t dare leave it in the hotel, Peterson had to think. “I put it in my muff and thought, ‘Nobody knows I’ve got it,’” she recalls.

“We were at this one showroom and this guy said to me, ‘You’re from the wild West.’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ He said, ‘Do you carry a gun?’ I said, ‘Of course. Who doesn’t?’ And I opened my muff.

“Well I want you to know I got the best service from that company from then on out.”

On Saturday, Tucson’s grande dame of fashion and style turns 100 years old. She’s sharp as a tack, with barbed opinions, and still puts in time at her business. Her childhood memories sound like they sprang from the pages of a Western novel.

Such as the time her brother decided their mom should get that garden she always wanted, even with the rock-hard caliche below the surface and the steep slope behind their home on Quality Hill in Bisbee. The property was bordered by a junior high school on one side and neighbors on the other.

Somehow her brother swiped a piece of dynamite.

“We buried the dynamite kind of into the ground to make my mother a garden and set it off,” she laughs. “Can you imagine? We could have blown up the school. We could have blown up all the houses around us.” Instead it shook the houses and made a nice hole.

Peterson and her older brother weren’t quite as lucky when they lured their younger brother into an abandoned mine full of scorpions and snakes and closed the old door on him. The problem was they couldn’t get the door open again. As sundown approached, her brother ran for her parents. They had to get a welder to cut the door open.

“Well I’m telling you, we got a real whipping for that,” she says.

No doubt about it, Peterson has lived a life of legend. Through field glasses she watched puffs of rifle smoke from the Mexican Revolution across the border in Naco. She put a dead rattler in a candy box on Valentine’s Day and gave it to her chemistry teacher, who promptly fainted when he opened the box.

Today the mischievous girl might have ended up in reform school. Instead she became a pioneer businesswoman and one of the most important philanthropists this city has yet created.

Sitting at the desk in her clothing store at the Crossroads Festival shopping center at Swan and Grant roads, Peterson recalled the events that led up to her move to Tucson.

Born Cecilia Fruitman in Pensacola, Fla., her family moved first to Tennessee, later to California and then to Bisbee when she was around 3 years old. The move to Bisbee was prompted not by mining jobs but by the climate, which was deemed helpful to her mother, who suffered from consumption.

After graduating from high school in Bisbee, Peterson attended the University of Arizona for a year. She was 15 at the time – a source of great worry to her mother because college age boys, not knowing her real age, were asking her out. After that she headed east to study at an all girls school. She hated it and quickly enrolled instead at nearby George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she met her future husband, Tom Peterson.

“Everyone I knew worked on the (congressional) hill,” she said. “I wanted to work on the hill too. I asked how I could get a job and I was told to go see my congressman, Senator (Carl) Hayden. I went to Senator Hayden and I said, ‘I want to work up on the hill, too.’ He said, ‘What do you do?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know if I do anything in particular.’ He asked me, ‘Can you speak Spanish,’ and I said ‘I grew up in a community with Spanish. I can try.’”

Hayden arranged for her to work for the Library of Congress translating documents related to Arizona’s history. The job took her to Mexico City at one point for research, but with photostat machines tied up in Veracruz she mostly twiddled her thumbs.

But she did meet remarkable people through that job, one of them a manager for Ford Motor Co. He had an amazing house with every room decorated like a different country.

“I made the remark, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have money enough to do all these things.’ And he looked at me and laughed and said, ‘Let me tell you something Miss Cele. Everybody wishes they had money enough. This year we don’t have money enough to paint the yacht.’ So that’s become a byword with us here. ‘Sorry, we don’t have money enough to paint the yacht.’”

Nobody had the money to paint the yacht when Peterson came to Tucson to open her first business at the height of the Great Depression. Her parents owned a clothing store in Bisbee so “I knew a little bit about fashion.” In 1931, with a pair of women from Tucson, she opened her first store downtown called The Coed Shop. That name stuck until she changed it to Cele Peterson’s a few years later.

“‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,’” she said of the risky decision. “I never thought that I was getting into something that I couldn’t handle.”

Peterson hit upon an idea that set her business apart – to market not what people could afford to buy but what they wanted to buy. She sized up her market and her customers and set about making a name for herself.

One of her customers was her friend Ruth Mary Ronstadt, mother of singer Linda Ronstadt. Linda is Peterson’s goddaughter.

“One of my earliest memories is going with my mother to Cele Peterson’s dress shop, probably around 1950,” Linda Ronstadt says. “She would bring my mother a dressing gown and a cup of coffee, seat her in a comfortable chair and bring out a selection of lovely clothes, many of them probably purchased for the store with my mother in mind. Cele knew her clients well. She knew what social functions they would attend and what their budgets would allow.

“They trusted her to dress them not only beautifully, but appropriately. It was a point of pride for her customers to look their best and she knew how to make them so.

“She also was a talented designer. She designed clothes that were both stylish and practical for this hot climate and slightly more relaxed atmosphere,” Ronstadt said. “She called it her Station Wagon line and I can remember items my mother wore year after year. She always looked wonderful in them.”

In 1934 Peterson married Texas-born Thomas Peterson, an insurance man who died in 1989. Tom kept an eye on the financial details of her business, leaving her to make the creative side work. Together they had five children: Katya, Quinta, Tom Jr., Eva and Frank.

The business grew and expanded with the town. From the original little shop on Stone between Congress and Pennington (and later downtown locations), Peterson moved the business with the times to El Con Mall, Casas Adobes Shopping Center and Foothills Mall before settling at her current Crossroads Festival digs. Her customers ranged from the rich and famous to ordinary folks from Tucson. Any who made a purchase left her shop in style.

Her business took her around the world on buying trips and fashion shows. But Tucson was always home. She cares deeply about this town and isn’t always thrilled with how it’s taking shape.

“I think we have a big battle in Tucson today,” she says. “I think we’re battling between keeping it a unique community as opposed to a metropolis. We’re not trying to be a Phoenix, and yet the developers are trying to make us into a Phoenix,” she said. “People are more friendly here. People are more open. People are giving in this community instead of just taking. Maybe it’s because it’s smaller.”

Peterson is a classic example of Tucson’s generous personality. Sister Kathleen Clark remarked to her at one point that she saw numerous abused children, and wouldn’t it be great to have a place where they could live in safety and love. Peterson offered a house she owned at Speedway and Fourth Avenue, and Casa de los Niños was born.

“Sister Kathleen was such a terrific person,” Peterson said. “She’d go anywhere that she heard children were abused and would pick up that child and bring it in.”

Casa was one of many charities and causes Peterson has lent her name and resources to.

“I’ve had a great career because the Lord blessed me. He gave me an obligation to give. How could you turn anyone down who’s asked you for a favor? It was simple.”

As she tickles the 100-year mark, Peterson is still an elegant presence in Tucson.

“Fashion is a way of life,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be in clothes. It’s in trends, in houses. It’s in your eyeglasses. It’s in whatever you do. Plants are fashion. Shoes are fashion. Your teeth are fashion. I think of this woman with her gold teeth. I could never take my eyes off of her. Exercise is fashion. And I still say life is what we want it to be.”

Happy birthday, Cele!

Peterson at about age 18 in a portrait she had taken for her mother.

Peterson at about age 18 in a portrait she had taken for her mother.

Peterson at about 4 years old, growing up in Bisbee.

Peterson at about 4 years old, growing up in Bisbee.

Peterson in her home in 1968.

Peterson in her home in 1968.

Peterson looks through clothing at her store in about 1981

Peterson looks through clothing at her store in about 1981

Cele Peterson and her husband, Tom, walk downtown shortly after she opened her first store in the early 1930s.

Cele Peterson and her husband, Tom, walk downtown shortly after she opened her first store in the early 1930s.

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