THE PHOTOGRAPH in the newspaper showed a handsome man, black, with a broad, delighted grin. To his right stood Gen. Louis H. Wilson, commandant of the Marine Corps. He, too, was smiling as he placed the star on Frank Petersen Jr.'s shoulder. To Petersen's left stood a woman with long black hair. The caption identified her as his wife, Alicia.
It did not say second wife and it did not refer to Petersen's first wife, but then there wasn't any need to. Eleanor Petersen, the woman who was his wife for 20 years while he worked up through the ranks to become the Marine Corps' first black general, was downtown working that day. Ellie Petersen, who raised the couple's four children, who moved the family in and out of 22 different homes while her husband dedicated himself to his illustrious career, is out of the picture now. Another lady is there for the payoff, says Ellie Petersen. Another lady is now the wife of the Marine Corps' first black general.
There is a lot of hurt left in Ellie Petersen. She tells of a neighbor leading her from the court-room after the judge pounded the gavel that day in May 1974, and declared her to be divorced on grounds of mutual separation. There is pain and there are things she is bitter about but she talks about them not so much to complain, but rather to analyze.
Here is the story of a very smart, educated woman who fell deeply in love with a military hero, the Marine Corps' first black aviator. She married a man who has spent all of his career at the cutting edge of forces integrating the all-white, tradition-bound elite of the American military.
Hers is the story of a Marine Corps wife, a story of long separations from her husband, of constant family moves, of sacrifices to free her husband from family responsibilities so he could pursue his career.
In that sense, her story is rather typical of ones told by wives of ambitious men. But hers also is the story of being the first blacks in a white world. It is a story she tells with a sense of humor, very candidly, dissecting the emotions, the people, and the extraordinary historical situation into which she was cast. (Gen. Petersen, who has now been assigned to Washington, declined to be interviewed for this column.)
Ellie Peterson is 46 years old now, an attractive, gracious woman with luminous brown eyes, light skin, softly waved dark hair, a vivacious, earthy laugh and the kind of figure women don't often have after four children. She and her children have continued to live in the Shepherd Park home she and her husband bought when they were married. It is a cheerful home with lots of light and splashes of yellow in the living room.
She now works for a consulting firm in Washington and was attending a conference of the National Association of Minority Construction Contractors on April 27, the day for former husband was made general. "I was very busy doing my own job. Did you see the picture with his wife with her back to the camera? Faceless. That's kind of the way the Marine Corps thinks about wives. People say to me, 'Ellie, wouldn't it have been nice for you to have been there after 20 years?' But it really wouldn't have made any difference. That's the way the Marine Corp thinks about wives."
Faceless, perhaps, but not irrelevant. "The Marines expect the wife to be that helping hand," she says. "The wife was evaluated in those days. All those fitness reports said I was a fantastic asset to this man."
Hers was not, she says, a good marriage. "Through the years we became married against each other rather than to each other." She and Frank Petersen first met in their hometown of Topeka, Kan. She went to the University of Kansas and he went off to the service. Later, when they met again, they courted and married quickly. "He told me if he got selected to be a regular marine, we could get married. If not, we would not. Once you're in ranks up to a point you promotions are pretty automatic. He was the only black officer. Once he knew he was in the regular Marine Corps it was just a matter of jockeying for the right assignments and getting a guardian angel in the front office."
It was also, she says, a matter of knowing where not to go, such as the time he got orders to go to helicopter school in Florida. "He told them we would not make it there because 'my wife looks too white. They'll say it's a mixed marriage and all that,'" and at the last moment, she says, snapping her fingers, "that was canceled. It was not on track."
His, she says, was a "pull up by the bootstraps story. Nobody helped him." It was the story of a man who became the Marine Corps' first black aviator in 1952 when being black was about as helpful to a marine as being a woman.
"He was a very ambitious person. He had to go to every school he thought could help him climb the ladder." She ticks off the bases. "El Toro, Hawaii, Quantico, Okinawa, Pennsylvania, D.C. We moved to San Francisco when he was in Vietnam (for 15 months). He was shot down in Vietnam with a back injury. We moved back here while he wwas in Bethesda Naval Hospital. He was in and out. He never did come home after that."
"Most of the time he would volunteer" for posts, says Ellie Peterson. "He had to do all those kinds of things. That left me with the kids. He'd say this'll look good on my record. He went on our wedding night and every night for the next two weeks to see the simulated bomb go off in Reno.
I got to be the brunt of a lot of jokes.That's when I learned to laugh.
"It was not a marriage where there was a buddy system," she says, "where I swim in my water and you swim in yours but if I yell trouble you come swimming over and help me out. It I was in trouble he was usually never around and he felt I was never able to understand the problems that he was having in the Marine Corps. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact I didn't work, and his work involved so much pressure, and he never saw that my taking care of four kids was a hell of a lot of work. It was like most marriages: a matter of mutual misunderstanding."
She did a lot of entertaining. "I liked it and I did it because I knew it would help his career and also because we were blacks and I wanted people to know we were all right."
She speaks of the rigors of military life and of the racism they encountered, of white officers clubs, of people who assumed her husband was a sergeant because blacks never became officers. "I came from a family of nine children. I took to the military very readily. I reached out to people who might not otherwise reach out to us. We were different," she says. "I'm sure a lot of things that went on in the job he didn't share because they were so painful.
"When we'd get on a base, I'd convince people we were all right and they'd truly love us. My house looked like a little officers club."
"I have light skin. He has dark skin. He would naturally feel they liked me more because I was light and more like them. Whenever he would want to put me down, he'd use this." There was the time, she recalls, when she overheard her father-in-law say, "well, at least she's light and your children will be pretty. I was brokenhearted."
"Later, times changed and I wasn't black enough," she says. "I tried to wear Afro wigs."
"That's always been his thing, his goal, of being the first black general in the Marine Corps. I took that upon myself as his goal," says Ellie Peterson. "I could ride on his coattails to his success. But as women's liberation came along, I had to realize that would still be his success."
Leanor Peterson has found a new life, after marriage and the Marine Corps, that will be the topic of Friday's column. She seemsto be a happy and confident and enormously proud of her children. And she still hs a soft spot in her heart for their father. "He's tall, handsome charming and personable," she says, "and there's still lots and lots of times I wish things had worked out differently."