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Tears, Hymns for a Kind Girl With a Competitive Spirit

Celeste Peterson hugs Kum Suk Song, who came to the viewing of Peterson's daughter, Erin, to express her condolences.
Celeste Peterson hugs Kum Suk Song, who came to the viewing of Peterson's daughter, Erin, to express her condolences. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

Erin demonstrated an old-fashioned sense of decorum and a teenager's taste for pop culture. She insisted on addressing co-workers at the Chantilly-based North American headquarters of Rolls-Royce, where she had been an intern and planned to return, as "Miss Janice" or Miss so-and-so, even after her boss insisted that she stop. It was the way she was raised, her mother said. You gave adults their prefix.

But Erin was also frequently spotted at school with a single ear bud hanging out, piping in 50 Cent, to the head-shaking dismay of friends who didn't share her crush. She'd watch "Love and Basketball" over old-school stove-top Jiffy Pop at a friend's house and "Steel Magnolias," again and again, at home.

Erin could also be concerned about the right shade of nail polish, as was the case in a pre-prom rush last year with friend Whitney Hubbard. They debated whether she should go with gold to match her dress; she ended up with French tips.

They didn't get to bed after the prom until 6 in the morning. "We didn't want to leave. We were having so much fun," Hubbard said.

At the service yesterday, in a church filled with song, white-gloved attendants tried to comfort weeping mourners by waving fans printed with an image of the Last Supper. Erin was devout. She had used a marker to inscribe her basketball shoe with the words: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

Church musician James Wigington led the chorus and mourners in soaring repetition: "It's going to be all right. It's going to be okay. Erin Peterson, we love you."

Erin would call home daily from Virginia Tech. Her father, Grafton, would wait up. "He'd usually stay downstairs in the chair until after she called, then come to bed," Peterson said.

"It has been hard. My husband's just done. He doesn't want to talk to anybody else, and I don't blame him," Peterson said. "He's dealing with some anger. I mean, his baby's gone."

Sitting at home, Celeste Peterson leafed through a memory book put together by teammates and friends. "RIP BIG E," it said. In one picture, she was in the new dress they had just bought her. "This is at her dorm room. . . . There's her prom. This is at her birthday party last year," she said.

"Talking about her and how fun she was has really helped a lot," she said.

She tried to read the message left by one friend, Tim Parrish, eventually making it through: "I remember your mom always calling me baby and I know that she's lost her real baby now, but you'll always be in our memories. I hope heaven's got a basketball hoop, cus I'm lookin forward to postin up on you up there, even though I'm sure you dominated me almost every time we played."

Her daughter had a way of combining common sense and book sense, her mother's exuberant outlook and her father's realism, family members and friends said. Celeste Peterson would tell her daughter that she could do anything she wanted.

" 'Erin, your destiny is greatness,' " she'd tell her, which would elicit a joking scoff. "I said, 'God told me to tell you that this is your destiny.' I just never thought my baby would have to die for people to get to know how great she is."

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