Story, photos and videos by Jo Mathis/AAPS District News
In the weeks following the death of Skyline High School English teacher Chris Peterson in a kayaking accident July 3, many of his students reached out to staff about a way to honor him.
After all, Peterson was the kind of teacher who would happily come in early to work with students, and then stay late, talking with them about their homework, their personal lives or college or other classes.
Shelby Eaton, who was Peterson’s student teacher and now teaches the classes he had taught, recalls the times she’d come to his class in tears after a particularly hard day of student teaching.
“He would listen without interrupting,” she recalled. “Then he would speak calmly and give me advice based on his experiences. He created a safe place for me and for students by building really strong relationships. When you told him about yourself, he really cared.”
So Eaton was happy when she learned that this year’s Skyline Homecoming Parade would be dedicated to Peterson’s memory. And she was especially pleased Friday night to drive the truck carrying the grand marshals: Peterson’s wife, Sarah and their sons, Owen, 8, and Stephen, 5.
As she waited for the parade to begin, Sarah Peterson said she felt very honored.
“The boys were excited about doing it,” she said, as her sons gathered the candy they would throw to the crowd. “And I was really touched that the students of the homecoming committee would want to honor him in this way.”
She said her husband was “irreplaceable,” and that she misses everything about him.
“He was the kindest, gentlest, most generous person you’d ever meet,” said Sarah Peterson, whose sons are in third grade and kindergarten at Haisley. “I wish he weren’t so irreplaceable. And he was the best dad.”
Chris Peterson used to attend the homecoming parades and many of the home football games.
“He would want to see students who were playing football or who were in the band,” said his widow. “And we even went to the Neutral Zone one time where one of his students was going to be rapping. So we went to support a friend of his.”
She said the entire Ann Arbor community has made the family feel loved, and she is thankful for that.
Skyline English teacher Sunnie Esper said it was fitting that the family be recognized as marshals of the parade.
“As a staff we often talk about the Skyline difference,” said Esper. “Chris fully embodied Skyline’s core values and commitment to excellence. He saw the best in everyone he met. We all loved Chris and we wanted to embrace his family. I know how much he loved his wife and sons. I know that this would have made him smile.”
There’s no one who deserves to be honored more than Chris Peterson, said Eaton. “Chris changed so many lives at this high school and did so much for his community that I think having his wife and sons as grand marshal is so special and will mean so much to so many people,” she said. “I had never seen anyone as passionate about teaching as he was.”
Eaton said Peterson traveled the world with his family; spoke several languages; played in a band with his brother; rode his bike to work; and was a staff advisor of Skyline’s student newspaper.
She said he did amazing work with English Language Learners.
“He would pay for students who lived farther away to come to school in a taxi and then had breakfast waiting for them when they arrived,” she said.
And for other students, he would often cook waffles or pancakes on a small griddle he kept in his classroom.
“He only had a half an hour and it was extremely messy, but he loved doing nice things for his students,” she said.
She said his death has been very hard.
“He was my mentor and also my friend,” she said. “I miss his smile, his messy desk, his passion and love of people, his positivity, and his huge heart.”
A 1992 graduate of Jackson High School, Chris Peterson received a degree in education in 1997 from the University of Michigan. He was also a DJ at the University of Michigan’s student-run radio station, WCBN, where he showcased Latin and African music.
Tonya Whitehorn met Peterson when he became an English teacher at Skyline in 2010.
“What I will remember most about Chris is his kind spirit,” she said. “When he walked into a room, he brought a calmness into it. He never had a negative thing to say about anyone.”
Peterson’s legacy continues at the school, says Principal Cory McElmeel.
“We’re extremely pleased that Chris’s family could be here in his absence so we could honor him and honor his continued legacy with Skyline High School,” he said. “He will forever be a Skyline Eagle.”