Grethe Ballif Peterson
Community Justice Leader, 'Bridge Builder'

Grethe Ballif, BYH Class of 1950
Ann Greta Ballif, 1950

Brigham Young High School
Class of 1950

Grethe Peterson Aims
To Keep Building Bridges

By Lee Davidson
Washington Correspondent
Deseret News

Grethe Peterson says she is a bridge builder and put her skills to the ultimate test by trying to span the chasm between Mormons who abhor abortion and pro-choice groups.

``That's why I decided to get involved with Utahns for Choice (as a founding board member),'' she said. ``I am an active Mormon and am personally against abortion. But I don't believe that government should control that decision for others. . . . We have to educate and help avoid unwanted pregnancy." She said, "There is no more divisive issue than abortion. But you can't just be polemic and solve it. You need to bring the sides together and listen. I feel like I am helping to do that."

Peterson attempted to become the first woman U.S. senator from Utah so she can help build more such bridges.

``I feel it is important to have someone with a different voice running. That's important to finding solutions. I realized no other candidate offered real contrast - (Sen.) Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and (Rep.) Bill Orton (D-Utah) aren't really that different,'' she said.

Peterson has worked on plenty of bridges before - between feminists and women who decided to stay home with children; between a harsh justice system and abused children; and even in her family as a youth between outcasts and the community.

While she had not run for office before and is best known as the wife of former University of Utah President Chase Peterson, she comes by politics naturally from the women in her family.

Her mother was one of only a few women state legislators in the 1950s. An aunt was a top adviser to three presidents. And her mother's cousin was an early suffragette. She said they all taught her to serve others and to make that a priority.

They also made her a staunch, traditional Democrat - but she isn't ruled totally by party labels and even formed a Democrats for Leavitt group to campaign for Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt.

- Family motto is service -

`` `Have I done any good in the world today/Have I helped anyone in need/If not I have failed indeed.' We sang those words at church and believed them,'' said Esther Peterson - Grethe's aunt who was an adviser to presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter and, at age 86, was a U.S. delegate to the United Nations.

Grethe Peterson adds, ``Service was like our family motto.''

She remembers that her mother, Algie Ballif, served two terms in the Utah Legislature in the 1950s. ``That's when Democrats were strong in Utah County. There were also very few women in politics.''

Ballif also served on the Provo School Board for 25 years; was the state welfare commissioner; had time-consuming church assignments; and with her husband, George, worked on projects such as helping Provo form a municipal power company.

``Even with all she did, I remember she managed to always have a hot meal for us every night,'' Grethe Peterson said.

As a girl, Grethe Peterson said she also idolized her aunt Esther Peterson - who worked in the early years as a Washington lobbyist for labor unions. ``So we learned all the union fight songs,'' she said.

Grethe Peterson also watched her aunt's career advance as she became a labor and consumer official in three administrations and pushed such things as product labeling, truth-in-advertising and better meat inspection. Esther eventually won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, government's highest award for a civilian.

Esther Peterson remembers that her niece stayed with her occasionally ``and had a very inquisitive mind, was very open to new ideas and loved the politics.''

Part of that love may have also come from Achsa Eggertson - the cousin of Grethe Peterson's mother - who went to early national women's conventions and pushed for women obtaining the vote in the 1920s.

- Accepting others -

As part of service to others, Grethe Peterson said her parents and other family members also taught her to be accepting of others.

A longtime family friend, Shirley Brockbank Paxman, remembers also ``that everyone was welcome in that home (of her parents). Anyone who felt isolated seemed to find their way there.''

Grethe Peterson remembered that homeless people, ``who we used to call hobos, would come to the door and ask for work. My mother would say, `Help work in the garden for a few hours and I'll feed you.' Then she would feed them under our apple tree. We had a steady stream of people.''

Peterson remembered that when the Geneva steel plant opened and workers from around the nation were attracted by it, ``signs in some businesses popped up that said, `We do not cater to colored clientele.' I told my parents about it, and they were horrified,'' and worked to change it.

Another lesson in accepting others came because Grethe Peterson ``was always the tallest one in all my classes. But my parents and my brother and (two) sisters told me not to slouch and to stand up straight. They made me feel that being different was special.''

Longtime friend Paxman said, ``She loves all kinds of people. There is not a shred of sexism, racism or bigotry in her.''

Grethe Peterson said her love of people and gregariousness sometimes landed her in trouble in school. ``I remember one teacher telling me he would move my desk in the hall if I didn't quit talking.''

- Open to new experiences -

Paxman said Grethe Peterson was also never afraid of trying something new. ``I remember how impressed we all were when she went back East to school, which was then something that most girls from Provo did not do.''

She attended Radcliffe College after graduating from Brigham Young University. She remembered a professor kept telling her she should meet a young Harvard medical student from the West named Chase Peterson - and he told Chase he should meet Grethe Ballif. Both avoided attempts to match them up.

``But then we went to the same party and met each other anyway,'' she said. ``We fell in love and got married.''

Grethe Peterson taught elementary school in Connecticut (where Chase Peterson was a medical resident) and later in Germany (where he was a military doctor). They lived in Utah five years and then returned to Massachusetts where Chase Peterson worked at Harvard and Grethe Peterson devoted most her time to her three children.

An incident there shows she can be fearless. One of her neighbors was famous gourmet chef Julia Child. ``Many people are afraid to invite us over for dinner until they find out we are just common folk,'' Child said. But Grethe Peterson is one who did invite her over as a new neighbor.

``I cooked all day. Julia was wonderful. She said the food was delicious and then wanted to talk about our family and everything else but food,'' Grethe Peterson said.

Child said, ``It was a very good dinner. They were wonderful people. They are the sort of people you want as neighbors. Everyone loved them. They are just good, nice and cooperative.''

Grethe Peterson said that period deepened her desire to build bridges among differing groups as her children were the only Mormons in their school - and she watched sometimes dangerous student protests in Massachusetts against the Vietnam War.

- Building bridges -

Also, Grethe Peterson said she and others were concerned that the feminist movement was ostracizing people like her because they chose to raise families instead of pursue careers, ``and raising a family is the most important thing you can do.''

She tried to build a bridge by founding the journal ``Exponent II,'' much of which she put together in her attic, ``to support women as wives and mothers when it wasn't popular.'' It had essays and articles written by women about women's issues.

The Petersons returned to Utah after 11 years, where Chase Peterson worked at the U. School of Medicine and then became president of the university.

Grethe Peterson became involved in numerous community and church groups - ranging from chairman of the Utah Endowment for the Humanities and the Salt Lake Mayor's Task Force on Poverty to serving on the Utah Sentencing Commission and the Young Women's General Board of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - to name only a few of the 27 boards listed on her resume.

Friends say she served on the types of boards that require real work, not just showing up to give money and reap publicity.

Grethe Peterson said an example of that comes from how she helped found the Salt Lake Children's Justice Center.

``It started when I was called to jury duty. I figured that because I was the wife of the president of the University of Utah, I would probably be dismissed. I wasn't. And we heard a very difficult child sexual-abuse case,'' she said.

``It was the most difficult experience of my life. . . . Those poor children had probably had to repeat the allegations 15 times in the process. And you don't get well repeating a story like that - especially in front of a jury with the best defense attorney in town cross-examining you.

``Because of jury instructions and other matters, we had to find the father not guilty,'' she said. ``I couldn't forget the case. I had to do something. There had to be a better system.''

She persuaded state officials to study ways to improve how young abuse victims are handled and was appointed chairwoman of the Governor's Task Force on Child Sexual Abuse.

``For four years we talked about what was needed to change the system so that it didn't victimize children a second time,'' she said.

The result was forming the Salt Lake Children's Justice Center, where she said specially trained interviewers can talk to children in comfortable homelike settings. She said all participants in a case meet there once a week to talk about the needs of children and families and whether they are getting proper help.

``The way to solve problems is to bring the best people together from all sides and work together to find solutions,'' she said. ``No one agency has all the solutions.''

- An independent Democrat -

Such philosophy, she said, is one reason she helped form Democrats for Leavitt. ``Some in the party had trouble with my independence on that. But I can go beyond party labels.''

But she said she has always been a strong Democrat, unlike the other most prominent possible candidates early in the Senate race. Orton said he has never voted a straight party ticket in his life. Hatch said he was originally a Democrat but changed to a Republican when he felt Democrats abandoned working people.

Paxman said she wasn't surprised by Peterson's supporting Leavitt because, for example, ``she is very devout LDS. But she has an ecumenical quality about her. She loves all people.

``She is able to bring opposing factions together in a complementary, non-confrontational way,'' Paxman said. ``I saw her do that during the debate in the state on the Equal Rights Amendment, too. She personifies the ability not to draw hard lines and be accepting of others.''

Grethe Peterson said she enjoyed her years of supporting her husband when he was president of the U. - and actually learned a lot about politics by watching school politics there.

But she and her husband talked about her chances in politics now that he has returned to private medical practice ``and decided that it is my turn now. The timing seems right.''

But she added, ``Chase says the hardest thing for him is learning to be the spouse. It's hard to go to speeches and sit on the stand and just listen to me. I did that for years, too.''

She said she looks forward to addressing women's issues; the war on drugs - ``we have lost a whole generation to drugs''; term limits - ``many people are concerned about politicians staying too long in office''; and being ``a voice that talks about the needs of children.''

She sees them all as divisive or overlooked issues that need some more bridge building. ``And I like to think of myself as a bridge builder.''

[From Deseret News, Saturday, January 15, 1994.]

Ann Greta Ballif, or Grethe Ballif, graduated from Brigham Young High School in 1950. She then graduated from BYU, majoring in in History and French.

She did graduate work at Radcliffe College, Southern Connecticut State College, Harvard College, and the University of Utah. She has been instrumental in the founding of The Children’s Justice Centers in Utah.
Born in Provo, Utah, the youngest of four children, Grethe Peterson grew up in the loving environment of an extended family, with a grandmother and other relatives living just down the street.

She remembers Provo as a small university town where her father, an attorney, was able to be closely involved in her upbringing.

Grethe's entire education from grade school to college took place on the Brigham Young University campus. She first attended BYU's laboratory schools, then graduated from BYU with a bachelor's degree in History and French.

She later did graduate work in management at Radcliffe College (Harvard's counterpart before women gained admission there). She has also done graduate work at Southern Connecticut State College, Harvard College, and the University of Utah.

Grethe Ballif married Dr. Chase Peterson. Her husband was born in Logan, Utah in 1929. The son of Utah State University president E. G. Peterson, he attended public schools in Utah for nine years, then earned an AB degree from Harvard College and an MD degree from Harvard Medical School (in 1952 and 1956, respectively). He practiced medicine in Salt Lake City for five years in the mid-1960's.

In 1967, Dr. Peterson returned to Harvard to work as a university administrator. The Peterson family came West once again in 1976, when he was named Vice President for Health Sciences at the University of Utah.

Five years later, on June 14, 1983, Dr. Peterson succeeded David P. Gardner as president of the University of Utah, a position he held until he resigned to return to the practice of medicine in 1991.

Grethe Peterson says that she draws the most pleasure in her life from her children and grandchildren.

The Children's Justice Centers in Utah, which she helped found, have also been a great source of satisfaction to her.

As a result of being called to jury duty in a sexual abuse case, she witnessed what she thought was an injustice in the courtroom; specifically the way children were treated in the case.

She discovered that the courtroom environment was frightening to the children since they had to face the accused. They were unprepared for what they had to do, and as a result of this and other factors, the jury had to find the father of the child not guilty.

Grethe was haunted by the verdict and started consulting with all the professionals from the judge to the social workers. She found a consensus that there must be a better way.

After receiving the support of the Governor's Office in forming a task force to look into the issue of child abuse and the courts, a new program called the Children's Justice Centers was created.

It provided a homelike setting where children who are to testify in child abuse cases are brought in and interviewed by specialists. The interviews are taped and played in the courtroom, so children do not have to confront their accusers in the court setting.

The program has made a huge difference in the outcome of child abuse cases. There are now 14 CJCs in the state of Utah.

Because Grethe was surrounded by great female mentors in her family, she has always considered being a woman an advantage in life.

Her mother was a community activist who served on the Provo School Board for twenty-five years and also served in the Utah House of Representative.

Her aunt, Esther Peterson worked as a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO long before women were accepted in the world of labor leadership, and was later appointed as Consumer Advocate in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter Administrations, establishing guidelines for content in all consumer products.

Both of these women were inspiring as well as intimidating at times, and provided an example of courageous leadership that Grethe has followed often in her life.

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