Helen H. Peterson, 43, IBM systems engineer and church volunteer

April 27, 2001|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Helen Horton Peterson, a former IBM systems engineer and trainer, volunteered her time even as her breast cancer spread.

She died Sunday at the Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, about six years after the disease was diagnosed. She was 43.

Mrs. Peterson moved to Timonium last year with her husband, Norman Peterson, a veterinarian and biomedical researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Since then, she volunteered at St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lutherville, where she was a member, and at two area schools.

She remained active in a breast cancer support group in Pennsylvania and drove others for treatment.

Mrs. Peterson went door-to-door to meet her Killoran Road neighbors and soon was organizing a garage sale for them.

"She just kind of started knocking on doors and introducing herself. She invited everyone to her house," said neighbor Sally Slotke. "She became involved as a volunteer at the Ridgely Middle School library and media center, and at the Friends School computer camp."

"She just lived every day. She was a very unusual person: very determined and optimistic," Mrs. Slotke said. "She became part of the neighborhood immediately. She didn't wait for other people to reach out."

Born Helen Horton in Milwaukee, she grew up in Concord, Mass., and graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1979. She earned a master's degree in organizational dynamics in 1996 from the University of Pennsylvania.

Mrs. Peterson worked for 15 years for International Business Machines, then for a small computer company and at the computing center at Bryn Mawr, where she was active in the alumni association.

"Helen has been my best friend since I met her the first week of college," said Kennedy Smith, director of the National Main Street Center of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington.

"I have always believed her to be one of the most amazing people I've ever met ... the most compassionate and selfless person in my life, with a wonderful sense of humor," she said.

A member of the Sierra Club, Mrs. Peterson enjoyed hiking and camping, Ms. Smith said. Among her many other interests were playing piano, dancing, cats, puzzles and brain teasers, and reading.

Debbie Foot of Frazer, Pa., met Mrs. Peterson in a 1995 program for newly diagnosed breast cancer patients at Bryn Mawr Hospital. She wasn't surprised that Mrs. Peterson had continued her church and community work after the cancer returned in 1999.

"The seven of us formed such a bond that ever since then, we've met and had potluck dinners every four to six weeks," she said. "Helen was loved by all of us, and our hearts are heavy."

"Even though she was sick when at Gilchrist, a lady came up and thanked her for helping her elderly mother who had trouble eating. That represented the kind of person Helen was," said her husband.

A celebration of her life will be held from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at her home at 2312 Killoran Road.

A memorial service will be held at 7 p.m. May 4 at Reformation Evangelical Lutheran Church, 102 West Rose Tree Road in Media, Pa.

In addition to her husband of seven years, Mrs. Peterson is survived by a sister, Vera Schooley of Ithaca, N.Y., a niece and a nephew.

Memorial contributions were suggested to the American Cancer Society's Breast Cancer Network or the Helen H. Peterson/Anne B. Gardner Breast Cancer Awareness Fund, c/o Bryn Mawr College Resources Office, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, Pa., 19010-2899.

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