Sue Peterson was big time.
At least that’s how those who speak of her affectionately describe Susan, or Sue as she’s better known. She was big time in education, big time in faith, big time in marriage and motherhood, and a big time Weslaco East Wildcats fan.
She was as much of a regular at Weslaco East High School football games as the players and the Wildcat mascot.
Sue was also affectionately known as Mrs. P, and was in the crowd at most every other Weslaco East activity, such as Pigskin Jubilee marching competitions, choir concerts, track meets.
Randy Ginez, a Weslaco East graduate of the class of 2012, played football, basketball and ran track all four years, and he remembers hearing Peterson’s cheers — especially at basketball games.
For every game that took place in the Weslaco East gym, a pair of seats for her and her husband, Rob Peterson, were reserved at the corner of the bleachers.
“She was the No. 1 Wildcats fan,” Ginez said.
Those seats will be empty now. After a career dedicated to cheering and supporting her students, Mrs. P, the founding principal of Weslaco East, died on Dec. 14 after battling breast cancer for three years. She died at 61, exactly a month after her husband.
The Michigan native began her education as a fifth grade teacher at Dr. Armando Cuellar Elementary in 1981. After obtaining a master’s degree in management, her first year as an administrator was at Mary Hoge Middle School in 1992.
In 1996, she moved up to principal at Roosevelt’s Elementary, which she did until 2000, when she was asked to be the first principal of the then-new Weslaco East High School.
Mrs. P served in that position for 15 years before moving on to assistant superintendent — a role fulfilled until the day she couldn’t, working just a week before she died. Supporting her students, after all, was her life’s mission.
“You can tell she loved what she did,” Ginez said.
For his senior ceremony for basketball, his team was asked to pick a teacher that mentored them — Ginez chose Mrs. P.
He said she would often tell him “to reach for the stars,” but the smile she offered every morning on his way to class was enough of an encouragement to get on with the day.
“Seeing her smile every morning, it just made you feel like you were already having a good day; seeing Mrs. Peterson every morning was the best way to start every school day,” he said.
Ginez is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership at South Texas College, and said, “I’m going to reach for the stars the way she told me to, and get that degree. I’m going to get that degree, for her.”
Throughout her education career, Mrs. P won several acknowledgements for her dedication to the city’s students: Principal of the Year in 2007 by the Texas Association of Secondary School, recognized H-E-B’s Excellence in Education program in 2007 and 2008, and the 2015 city of Weslaco’s Woman of the Year.
But considering Mrs. P’s great love for students, being chosen by Ginez to accompany him at his senior ceremony probably meant more than any of her other titles.
Every morning, Mrs. P would stand outside her office to greet her students with her famous, warm smile. Then every lunch period, she made sure she stood by the entrance of the line to get a tray.
“She knew that if she wanted to be a good leader for the school and for the students, she had to be present,” said Melisse Krink, a longtime friend of Mrs. P and coworker for 35 years.
Krink accompanied Mrs. P on many school events, especially marching competitions. She remembered one year, Mrs. P had to be out of town during Pigskin weekend and made Krink call her when Weslaco East played and hold up the phone so she could hear them play.
Mrs. P’s dedication to cheering for the Wildcats wasn’t limited to home games; there were weekends when after a Friday football game, she would drive up past San Antonio that night to see the cross country take off the next morning at a regional meet.
“If the kids went that far, she went that far,” said Matthew Peterson, Sue’s youngest son.
Matthew has only one other sibling, his older brother Jacob — but considering the way Mrs. P cared for every student with a motherly love, he considered the entire Weslaco ISD as his family.
“You run into people who she taught their kids, or she taught them and they were introducing their kids, or she taught them and their kids — some families she taught three generations here in Weslaco,” he said.
“She gave it her all, even in the end, she wanted to make sure the work was getting done and that it was being done well… For her, it was always about the kids. That’s all she ever wanted, to make sure the kids got what they needed to succeed in life.”
Krink said Mrs. P’s favorite day of the year was graduation day; during her time as principal, Mrs. P saw as many as 4,000 students walk the stage.
“When we had graduation, and you had 400 kids go across the stage to get diplomas, well over three-fourths of them would turn around and give her a hug before they left the stage,” she said.
“You won’t see more kids hugging their principal.”
Darcy Cuellar, a Weslaco East graduate of the class of 2011, was lucky enough to be one of those students who received countless hugs from Mrs. P.
“In other schools, if you never saw your principal, that was a good thing,” Cuellar said. But not in Weslaco East, not when Sue was principal.
Cuellar is a talent selection and training coordinator for Chick-fil-A franchises in Lubbock, and said she learned much of the leadership skills she uses in that position from Mrs. P.
“At Chick-fil-A, they teach you that good leadership isn’t only what it looks like when you’re there, but also when you’re not,” she said. “And that is the kind of legacy that Mrs. Peterson was about, she didn’t have to be there for her to push you to be the better person.”
To appreciate her love for the city of Weslaco and its people, one can go back to how she arrived in the Mid-Valley.
After graduating from Hope College in Holland, Michigan, Mrs. P, by chance, saw a teaching opening in Weslaco, thousands of miles south from her hometown, and decided to apply.
“I fell in love with the people and I met my husband here and have been very happy ever since,” Mrs. P told the Mid-Valley Town Crier in September 2016. “I’ve felt fortunate since I walked in the door at Weslaco ISD, because I’ve never wanted to leave.”
In a tribute video the school district produced for Mrs. P, Superintendent Priscilla Canales praised her colleague’s character as much as her capabilities as an educator.
“Her capacity, her knowledge and her commitment, but most importantly her heart, all golden, all golden,” Canales said.