'Kids Love Him. He's a Kid at Heart.'

Bennie "Mr. Jump-Rope" Peterson during a physical education class in the lunchroom-gym at Leonardtown Elementary School. (Photo: Mark Gail/Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Teaching elementary school physical education is not easy, especially when hyper kindergartners are armed with jump-ropes.

To understand Bennie Peterson's daily life, take those rambunctious students and plop them into a cramped lunchroom or a tiny trailer during a two-years-and-counting school renovation.

Peterson said the cramped temporary quarters of Leonardtown Elementary School might be the reason he received the 2008 Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award for St. Mary's County.

"Give it to the guy in the trailer!" said Peterson, 53, joking this month during a kindergarten PE class focusing on jumping rope.

Peterson's co-workers and students say he deserves the award for different reasons, mainly for teaching generations of county children how to dribble, pitch, score and be good sports.

"The kids love him. He's a kid at heart," said food services manager Emma Knott, as she helped prepare steak-and-cheese pockets in the combination lunchroom-gym she shares with Peterson.

Peterson grew up in a small town in Iowa, played football at Graceland College and was drafted in 1978 as a wide receiver for the Chicago Bears, with a $1,000 signing bonus.

"You hear about kids nowadays getting million-dollar signing bonuses," Peterson said. "Mine -- 1,000 bucks. I have a copy of it framed at my house."

After just a few games his first season, Peterson was cut from the team. He returned home to Iowa, where he was hired to teach fifth grade and coach. Peterson slowly worked his way up the education ladder, finally landing a job coaching football in Des Moines.

In 1987, Peterson and his wife, a middle school teacher, decided to move to Maryland to be closer to family. Leonardtown Elementary School hired him as a PE teacher; he is in his 21st year there.

"I can go to any store in St. Mary's County, and I can see students I know," Peterson said. "And they all still call me Mr. P."

Peterson is also known as "Mr. Jump-Rope," as every year he organizes a "Jump-Rope for the Heart" fundraiser for the American Heart Association. Each year, third-, fourth- and fifth-graders raise more than $4,500 for the organization.

Leonardtown Elementary Principal Denise M. Eichel wrote in a nomination letter that students love attending gym class because of the encouragement and praise Peterson gives them.

"Everyone knows that you don't have to be the best basketball shooter or fastest runner to be successful. Mr. Peterson helps them learn that true success comes from best effort and good sportsmanship," Eichel wrote.

Peterson said he loves his job and tries to never miss a day. Those days will be easier, he said, when the new school is completed and his students can play on grassy fields.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company