July Fourth Grand Marshal: Lissa Petersen
After years as a tireless advocate for education and the Claremont hillsides, the city will be honoring Lissa Petersen as Grand Marshal of this year’s Fourth of July parade.
The COURIER spent time with Ms. Petersen in the courtyard in front of the Laemmle Theatre, where she said she was “shocked and overwhelmed” by the news. A friend initially nominated her as Honored Citizen back in February, and Ms. Petersen was making dinner in the kitchen in May when she received a phone call—it was a member of the city’s Fourth of July committee, telling her she was chosen to be grand marshal.
“I was overwhelmed and so grateful and feeling so unworthy,” she said. “And I keep thinking every day, what am I doing today to deserve this?”
But when one looks at her career, the reason becomes crystal clear. During her ten-year tenure on the school board, Ms. Petersen was instrumental in creating the city’s youth master plan, which led to the formation of CLASP (Claremont After-School Program. Later, she led the Claremont Wildlands Conservancy, which worked with the city to formulate guiding documents to oversee the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park.
Those are just a couple accomplishments. She served for 10 years on the Claremont Unified School District board (1985-1995) and laid the foundation for starting English-as-a-second-language programs at Mt. SAC, Pitzer College and Claremont Graduate University.
But she was quick to note that she didn’t achieve those accomplishments alone.
“When I look back on my career, the two of the biggest things I’m most happy about I’ve accomplished with a lot of other people,” she said. “I’m always part of a team.”
Ms. Petersen first moved to Claremont with her husband, retired Harvey Mudd physics professor Dan Petersen, in 1974. She was a high school English teacher back then, and wanted to transition into a new role in education.
Once she moved to the City of Trees, she got involved with the League of Women Voters, which has produced countless Claremont leaders over the years, from Judy Wright to Diann Ring to Suzan Smith.
At the time, she didn’t know anyone. That changed once she joined the League.
“A week later, I met the mayor,” she said. “It’s like, I don’t know anybody in town, and I’ve been here three weeks, and there’s the mayor of the town! It was amazing.”
Ms. Petersen’s greatest passion is teaching. You can see it in the way she talks about her time as an educator at institutions around the San Gabriel Valley.
Much of her career was focused on helping students who were at a disadvantage. She started Mt. SAC’s ESL program in the mid-70s after seeing an influx of refugees from Vietnam in her classes. After that, she launched similar programs for international students at Pitzer and CGU.
Through those programs, she helped immigrant students navigate their way through the college system and into a better life.
“It’s like, we have to do something different for these students, because what we’re teaching them is not working for them,” she said.
Her first taste of activism was when she joined the effort to keep the school board from closing Sycamore School—an act unthinkable today. She was still an observer for the League during school board meetings when she was tapped to run for an open position on the board.
“I had a child going into kindergarten and a third grader and I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ To me, the school board seemed like this lofty thing,” she said.
But once she won the open seat, she was hooked. “I ran for two more terms,” she said.
During that time, she said, the school board and the city council were thick as thieves, with one unifying aspect—they were all members of the League. Her term on the school board was highlighted by the creation of the Youth Master Plan, which led to a reduction in class sizes, the offering of academic support for low-income children and the creation of CLASP.
In recent years, Ms. Petersen has also become a staunch advocate for Claremont’s hillsides. The former president of the Claremont Wildlands Conservancy (CWC) led the charge in formulating the Wilderness Park Master Plan, the governing document for the city’s hills.
Even now, Ms. Petersen is still thinking of adding to the park, starting with the land in Evey Canyon that was ceded to the city by Pomona College.
“Our goal is to have all of Claremont’s hillsides in the Wilderness Park,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s possible, but as much as possible.”
In light of all that’s been accomplished, Ms. Petersen feels her work in Claremont is not yet done.
“I just feel so overwhelmed and grateful, and am I really worthy?” she said. “I really feel that way. There’s so much more to do.”
But above all, she has a deep admiration for Claremont and the people who live here, who have given her so much since she arrived. Claremont is a community that shows up to voice their opinion, which to Ms. Petersen signifies they care.
“People say Claremont is not like other cities. And it’s not,” she said. “And it’s small enough that you really feel like you belong.”