Obituary: Tribute to a modest gentleman who put his family and faith first
George S Peterson, 18th September 1927 – 22nd February 2010
Born at home in 1927, into a modest but very caring family, George Peterson was the youngest of five brothers, living with their parents in a one-bedroomed flat in “The Dwellings”, in St Magnus Street, Lerwick. He was educated at the Lerwick Central Public School, where he proved to be an able pupil, but left his schooling without staying on for highers, something which he would want to rectify later in life.
His mother took him along to gospel meetings at Garthspool Evangelical Church, which had a profound influence on him, so much so that he publicly declared his Christian beliefs by adult baptism in May 1944, and joined the Lerwick Baptist Church where he had been a regular at their Sunday School. This was the start of his commitment to Christian living, and of his lifelong passion to study scripture, engage in discussion with others about its meaning and exercise his gift of lay preaching. Scripturally, he was an independent thinker and would not simply accept teaching without confirming it himself, even learning some New Testament Greek so he could better examine earlier texts to discern for himself their proper, intended meaning. As a result of his personal scripture studies he gradually felt that the Christian Brethren provided an ideal opportunity to exercise his preaching gift, and he started attending Ebenezer Hall in Lerwick around 1947.
It was at Ebenezer Hall that George met James M S Tait, a local solicitor, and although George’s previous employment had been as a clerk for A J Laurenson (plumber and heating engineer) and then for Shetland Hand Knitters Association, in 1948 the young man began a new career in law. Realising that he would need his highers to gain the required legal qualifications, George studied for them in his spare time, all the while working as an apprentice lawyer, moving to Edinburgh for a short time, getting married to Hilda and starting his own family. In 1956 he successfully passed his Law Society exams with merit, despite the difficult way in which he had gained them, returning to Shetland in 1957, eventually becoming a full partner in the renamed firm of Tait & Peterson in 1967.
Although always widely respected, George sometimes seemed rather reserved, apparently a little withdrawn from some of the people, social events and happenings around him. This was not necessarily due to his deeply held spiritual convictions, and was certainly not a sign of his disinterest in others, but more an indication of his tendency to shyness, his sincere humility and his genuine unwillingness to push himself into, and interfere in, other people’s lives. However, if anyone came to him for advice and help, whether on a secular or spiritual matter, he was the most supportive and trustworthy person you could ever wish to have by your side.
On secular matters he had the life experiences to see beyond the present difficulty, and offer simple, good, common sense advice. He was, without any doubt, the very best sort of father-in-law I could ever have wished for; never interfering but always there if needed; never criticising our decisions but happy to offer advice if asked, and always devoted to all of his family (Dorothy, Eric, Ireen, Graham, Sylvia and Hazel), their spouses and all the grandchildren.
Of course, his eyes sparkled if you wanted to chat about something scriptural, and he would do all he could to encourage a real self awareness of the true issues involved, so that you could come to your own conclusions without him impinging his views upon you. His knowledge of scripture was frankly astonishing and reflected a lifetime of Bible study, and hundreds of associated books read and inwardly digested. On such occasions where you arrived at the same answer that he had also reached, he would give a wonderful smile, give a mild thump of his hand on some imaginary table and say, “That’s the thing!”, excited that you had made the journey yourself – albeit with his help.
Mornings always started with a Bible reading and a time of family prayer at the breakfast table, a practice he and his wife maintained until he recently went into hospital. Weekdays, he always tried to arrive at Tait & Peterson early, usually finishing just in time to get home for tea, and most evenings he worked until 9pm, after spending some time with his children. Saturdays were a family day, and runs to the country for picnics were the usual thing for many years, until he bought a small cottage, Greentaft, at Dunrossness in 1974 which was then the focus for time away from Lerwick, sometimes for long weekends in the summer.
Sundays were a day devoted to Christian things, with at least two services at Ebenezer Hall, hospital services to take, visits to old and ill folk from the church and often visits to other churches all over Shetland to help by taking their evening service. During his adult life he took every opportunity to preach and teach God’s word in the country brethren assemblies throughout Shetland, and when on holiday in the UK, and even as far afield as the Faroe Islands and New Zealand. He was in popular demand as a lay preacher and enjoyed taking services and leading Bible studies in many denominations, as well as several cottage meetings throughout Shetland.
As honorary Pastor of the Church at Ebenezer Hall he was authorised to conduct marriage services, and he officiated at quite a number of weddings in Shetland and elsewhere in the UK including, to his delight, five of his six children. He and Hilda had sadly to bear the loss of losing their daughter Ireen, who died in New Zealand in August 2006, after a long battle with cancer. But they were comforted by her very strong faith in her Lord and Saviour who helped her, and her husband Graham, through that difficult time. As part of his pastoral care he also conducted many funeral services over the years and always prepared for each one individually and meticulously.
In everything, he led by example, and no-one can ever remember him using a single swear word in his entire life. He took his faith as a template for his life, and considered the Bible as a set of principles and practices which were worth attaining and striving for, and behaved and measured his life accordingly. George and Hilda were always known for their ready hospitality in putting up visiting Christian workers, missionaries, evangelists and speakers, and the numbers who stayed with them over the years was in the many hundreds. Many of these visitors have stayed in regular communication with George and Hilda, some for over 40 years.
George had a ready and quick wit, and was good fun at the dinner table, when his shyness receded and he would talk about any number of subjects from current affairs to people he had known and places he had visited. He greatly enjoyed some of life’s simpler pleasures: fishing in Shetland’s lochs, listening to Scottish country dance music on Saturday afternoons, keeping up-to-date with the local, national and international news. But he particularly liked spending time surrounded by his family.
He loved music, and taught himself to play the organ and the piano accordion. His singing voice was strong and in key, and he often led the morning songs at Ebenezer Hall when no musical instrument was present.
Never keen to push himself forwards, he was always ready to take up any challenge given to him, and was involved in many organisations and groups over the years. George was a founding member of the Shetland Branch of the Gideons International, was on the Shetland Council Churches Trust, was an active member of the Probus Club, an active member of the Shetland Stroke Support Group, and was a founder member of the Shetland Bible Week.
In 1982, George was installed as an Honorary Sheriff, and on that occasion Sheriff MacDonald remarked: “Mr Peterson was a well-liked and well-respected colleague, an excellent colleague for all to work with, a most agreeable man, scrupulous and moderate, and in every way set the example the senior member of the bar ought to set.” Even in retirement, and despite having suffered a stroke, he was determined to continue his scripture studies by distance learning and enrolled at Aberdeen University to pursue a degree in Theology, something he had always wanted to achieve. He was awarded a Diploma in Theological Studies in August 2006 at the age of 79, but sadly he was unable to complete the degree course due to his recent deteriorating health.
A highly respected, self-made, honourable man and also very much a “gentleman” in the old-fashioned sense, George is survived by his widow Hilda, five children and 14 grandchildren.
Contributed by Graeme Storey, Lerwick