"Baltimore's a good size," says Clementine Peterson. "It's big enough to need you and small enough to be convenient."
That's 100 talking. Or to be more accurate, 99.99.
Clementine Peterson, also known as Mrs. Duane L. Peterson, and to her many friends as Clemmie, will turn 100 years old on Thursday, and the Baltimore that has needed her this past half-century is singing her praises.
A week ago the Baltimore Choral Arts Society gave a concert in her honor.
Thursday afternoon she will be given a party by 23 organizations and institutions that owe her a debt of gratitude -- from the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and the Baltimore Community Foundation to the Greater Baltimore Medical Center and Villa Julie College. The list could be twice 23 and still not exhaust the recipients of her philanthropy, her time and her efforts on behalf of her adopted city.
The same evening the Peabody Opera will dedicate to her its production of Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring," which Mrs. Peterson has underwritten, as she does one of Peabody's operas every year. And on Saturday friends and relatives from across the country will gather at her home for another party.
She's looking forward to it all in the same spirit she's brought to all her activities here. "I owe a thank-you to Baltimoreans for making this possible," she says. "I appreciate their friendship and their interest, which I hope will continue. And I appreciate the attention they've given me when I'm interested in any project."
Over the past 20 years, since the Duane and Clementine Peterson Charitable Fund was established, it has given about $12 million away, according to its longtime manager, John Lalley, including a recent $1 million to Johns Hopkins University to establish a chair in ethics and another $1 million to Western Maryland College to fund the restoration and renovation of its Fine Arts Building.
Mrs. Peterson is mostly bedridden with arthritis now, but "She is the youngest century-old person I've ever met," says Robert H. Chambers, president of Western Maryland, where she has been a board member since 1969. "She's quite sharp, has all of her business acuity and a great sense of humor." She has not only taken an interest in the redesign of the Fine Arts Building, Mr. Chambers says; "She wants to come out and see it, before and after."
Her first loves have always been education and the arts, especially music and, above all, opera. Over the years, Mr. Lalley says, she has given about $500,000 to the Baltimore Opera Company. At the Peabody Conservatory she established a vocal prize, a piano prize, and an endowment that will continue to underwrite an opera a year. The Walters Art Gallery received $100,000 in 1986 toward the renovation of its 1904 building. At Center Stage, her donations are in the five figures, and at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, her benefactions range from funding a scholarship to giving books to the library.
"When she had her 85th birthday party," says Center Stage managing director Peter W. Culman, "she said, 'Today is my birthday and traditionally on one's birthday one gets presents. But I'm going to do something a little bit different. I'm going to give a present. I'm going to make a contribution to Center Stage. And,' she added, 'I'm certain they can use it.' "
Her educational interests include St. John's College, Boys' Latin School, St. Paul's School for Girls, the Medical College of Pennsylvania and the Independent College Fund of Maryland, in which her husband was a major force.
The Peterson fund's beneficiaries run to four pages double-spaced, according to Mr. Lalley. But the interests of Mrs. Peterson and her late husband, after they came to Baltimore from the Midwest in the 1940s, were even wider, ranging across the civic landscape. She was president of the Women's Civic League, the first woman member of the Baltimore Planning Commission, the only woman member of the Governor's Transit Committee, leader of the community division of United Appeal ++ (now the United Way), president of the Baltimore Area Girl Scout Council and first woman on the executive board of the Baltimore Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, a member of the Committee for Streamlining State Government, and much more.
Despite the number of her associations, she has never been one simply to give money or to lend her name and let others do the work. "It's more important to give of yourself," she says. "That's the most important thing of all."
"Clemmie picks things and sticks with them," says Tom Hall, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, of which Mrs. Peterson has been a board member since it was founded 28 years ago. "She's intensely loyal. And she has always viewed her participation in terms of how to get other people involved. We have board members who have joined because Clemmie put the arm on them. And when she gave to our endowment fund, she put up money to match money, as an incentive and motivator."
That kind of thing was important to her and her husband, Mrs. Peterson says. When they came to Baltimore, she recalls, "One thing that was a little bit missing in Baltimore, and something that we worked on in every organization that we were in, was to put development on a stronger basis."
Asked how she has managed to do so much, she answers simply, "I don't know." But she adds, "I did find -- and I don't say this with malice toward anybody -- but I found that the people here had not been trained for a job the same way that we had preparation out West. You see, Baltimore was one of these early cities in having coming-out parties and things of that kind, and mixing the social up with the work. One thing they always did, if you were going to be chairman of a committee you'd find an orchid at your luncheon plate. Well, I took the first one and laid it aside, and then I gave them my ultimatum that that was a social thing and not a work thing. And they went by that after that.
'Different kettle of fish'
"It was a different kettle of fish, and I do think that they learned a lot and I was glad to be able to teach them, and they were more efficient after that."
Although the former Clementine Lewis was born in Hartford, Conn., she was brought up in Davenport, Iowa. "Davenport was a very good music center," she says, "and I think it still is." But she also had the advantage of a musical family.
"My mother played the piano and sang and my father played the flute, and the rest of the family were interested. My uncle was interested in grand opera. After dinner -- or it used to be supper in those days -- he would go into the parlor and take his violin and walk around the room playing opera. So I had a good background.
"And my uncle took the family to Europe for 18 months. We had relatives living there, because my mother's people came out of Germany, and we did Europe very well and went to school and took music over there before I finished high school."
Her instrument was the piano. "But I have since wished that I hadn't put it all on one instrument, because, well, everybody plays the piano and I would have liked to play the violin."
She attended Vassar, but after an illness she finished at Northwestern University in Chicago, earning bachelor's and master's degrees. It was there she met her husband, but it was the time of World War I and he was in the armed services, not college. After the war, he went back to work for Butler Brothers, a wholesale mail order firm, which eventually transferred him to Baltimore.
"Before we came, we talked to people who thought they knew Baltimore and they were trying to tell us that we would not be received cordially, and that it would take a long time and we would never be accepted. Well, that wasn't true at all. My husband said, 'We're going to go as ourselves and not make believe,' which is what we did, and it didn't take very long because we were both open-minded and took things as they came."
Subsequently, Mr. Peterson left Butler to found Peterson, Howell and Heather, now known as PHH, which became the country's largest auto fleet management and leasing company.
'Anything but inferior'
One of seven brothers, he had deferred to the others' college plans, Mrs. Peterson remembers, and had only one year himself. "That was always his greatest regret. He felt he was sub-educated and he didn't belong in my company because I had education. So I fought that all through our marriage, where he would feel inferior, and he was anything but inferior. He was way above me. And when we came to Baltimore, it wasn't long before they discovered his aptitude."
Indeed, Mr. Peterson's list of civic activities rivals that of his wife. He was president of the Baltimore Association of Commerce, a member of the Commission for Government Efficiency and Economy and of the Off-Street Parking Committee, vice president and director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Maryland (now the Independent College Fund), a member of the board of governors of St. John's College, etc.
Mrs. Peterson consulted her husband before accepting positions, she remembers, but she also recalls he encouraged her to be her own person. "I talked things over with my husband, but he never would tell me what to do. Never. He'd say, 'That's your job. That's what you're there for.'
"I wasn't always pleased with my decisions, because I would see something afterward that I hadn't seen before, usually a point of view, and I would always regret that."
As 100 approaches, Mrs. Peterson is very much a person who knows her own mind. She has probably devoted more of her energies over the years to the Baltimore Opera Company than to any other cause, but recently resigned from its board out of dissatisfaction with current management. Mr. Lalley describes her as "determined but gracious. She doesn't duck an issue, but at the same time she's a real lady."
She looks back on her Baltimore years with the same fondness that all those who think of her as Clemmie have for her. "I've just taken it as a very wonderful and blessed period in my life," she says.