Tears, Hymns for a Kind Girl With a Competitive Spirit

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Before Erin Peterson's Centreville home became a center of mourning, it was a pizza house, study hall, movie theater, classroom and sanctuary, a place where a teenage girl learned to be a young woman and two parents delighted in helping their baby get ready for the world.

Members of the Westfield High School basketball team, who wanted to bring dinner and some solace, dreaded walking into that space without Erin there.

"Her parents were like her life," said Josephine McLane, a close friend and teammate. "Everyone on our team thought it was going to be so bad seeing her mom."

But then Celeste Peterson did what she has been doing, some nights until midnight, since Erin, a freshman international studies major at Virginia Tech, was killed: She began supporting all the supporters.

"She was like, 'What are you guys waiting for? Eat,' " said McLane, whom Erin had dubbed Robin to her own Batman. "She was trying to make everybody else feel better around her. . . . She was crying a couple times, but she was just telling stories about Erin."

"Just looking at her, you could see Erin in her," McLane said. "She was full of life, too."

Celeste Peterson's memorial to her daughter, that evening at home and yesterday with hundreds of mourners who filled and surrounded Mount Olive Baptist Church in Centreville, has been, for now, to keep being a mother. She doesn't know how else to make it. Yesterday, she stood outside for more than an hour hugging and talking with those walking in to see the open casket, which was placed before a hanging blue tapestry with two outstretched hands.

Erin was buried later in the day at Rock Hill Cemetery near Round Hill, where her grandfather is the caretaker.

"I just want to scream to the top of my lungs, 'The world is not as good without her.' I know a lot of parents lost their kids, and they are probably feeling the same way. But this kid, I'm just, I'm just shock and awe, that's all. I mean, shock and awe," Celeste Peterson said Monday. "She had such a kind and nurturing spirit. She was something. She was something."

Erin was both a tough competitor and a generous presence. She and McLane at times ripped each other's jerseys in practice, vying for a starting spot on the team, but they were inseparable once they cooled down.

As a sophomore, she tutored a senior in algebra without any embarrassing fanfare, her mother learned a few days ago.

"She was a true Bulldog on the court," said Westfield Principal Tim Thomas. Off, "she was gentle, and she was sweet. . . . I have an answer to the question, 'Mr. Thomas, what's a model student?' My answer consists of three words. Erin Nicole Peterson."

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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