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Faithful secretary leaves a lasting legacy

If you had to pick one word to describe Donna W. Petersen, it might be generous.

But that wouldn't be adequate.

She was loyal, too. And a lover of nature, music and learning.

"She just had this thirst to learn more," said her nephew Marty Petersen of Plymouth, Minn.

It didn't surprise Marty when his aunt left $40,203 to the Hudson Area Joint Library when she died Feb. 6 in Christian Community Home at the age of 89.

"She just had a great appetite for reading, so I knew that was coming. She would check out a stack of books at a time when she went to the library," Marty said.

What today's Hudson residents may not know is that Petersen's career was linked to that of former H.B. Fuller Co. president and Minnesota Gov. Elmer L. Andersen's for more than 40 years.

She went to work for Andersen in 1941, shortly after he had joined H.B. Fuller Co.

In his book, "A Man's Reach," Andersen wrote: "One of the first hiring decisions I made turned out to be one of the best. I hired Donna W. Petersen, a young lady from Hudson, as my secretary. Donna stayed with me for 40 years through every turn of my career and she was a marvelous secretary. She became an extension of me, multiplying my efforts by her own.

"She was accurate in dictation and letter writing so I could dictate a letter and not have to see it again, not even sign it. She kept my schedule in perfect order so I always knew where I was supposed to be. Planning trips, arranging appointments, communicating with anyone I needed to contact - those things and more she performed gracefully and pleasantly. Everyone who knew me came to know Donna and appreciate her gracious, patient, approachable manner."

Andersen goes on to relate how after Petersen had officially retired, she told him she didn't enjoy anything as much as working for him, and that she thought he still needed her help. After that, she did secretarial work at the Andersens' home, and continued to until her health no longer allowed her to do it.

Petersen was born in Hudson Dec. 4, 1916, to Eric C. and Ann Petersen.

Her mother was a Heggen and grew up on a farm now traversed by a city street bearing the family name.

After graduating from Hudson High School in 1934, she attended Rasmussen Business College in St. Paul and also took night classes at the University of Minnesota. She worked as a law secretary and a bookkeeper for the Hudson Cooperative Store before going to work for Andersen at H.B. Fuller Co.

Her obituary in the Star-Observer said she remained with Andersen as he became active in Minnesota politics and as a state senator and later as the governor.

Andersen, who died in 2004, described himself as a liberal Republican - a rarity nowadays.

News reports lauded him as "Minnesota's leading citizen" upon his death at age 95. He was president and CEO of a billion-dollar company, a newspaper publisher, an environmental leader, civil rights leader and philanthropist, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

Petersen, who never married, apparently emulated her boss' philanthropy.

According to James Steel, administrator of her estate, she also left money to First Presbyterian Church of Hudson, where she was pianist and choir member for much of her life, as well as to charitable organizations such as the Salvation Army and to family members.

"She was very generous and interested in local affairs," said Steel, who knew her for close to 50 years.

Steel said Petersen stipulated that the money she left for the library be used for a new building - and not ongoing operational costs.

"It certainly was a very generous gift on Miss Petersen's part, and the library is very grateful for her thoughtfulness and consideration," said Jim O'Connor, president of the library board.

"We view the library as a great public asset. It serves the whole community, and it certainly is worthy of inclusion in people's gift giving," O'Connor added.

He said the library board has hired a consulting firm to make recommendations on how to proceed with a building program. The board is still interested in locating a new building on the county property at the corner of Carmichael Road and Vine Street (County UU).

Petersen resided in the home on Riverside Drive in North Hudson where her parents had lived until she moved to Christian Community Home two and a half years ago.

Her nephew Marty Petersen used to help her with her grocery shopping and household chores.

"I miss our companionship and our conversations over coffee. She was just a great aunt," he said. "She always tried to nurture my interests ... She tried to keep me self-educated, too."

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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