Remembering Wayne Peterson: Leader and Philanthropist

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Memorial to be held today honoring former Laguna Beach mayor

Wayne Peterson, a beloved former mayor of Laguna Beach, passed away peacefully Sunday, Sept. 22, just five days before his 80th birthday.

A memorial celebration will be held Friday, Oct. 4, at 2 p.m. at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Avenue.

Peterson was born to Howard and Clara Peterson of Omaha, Nebraska, on Sept. 27, 1939.

“Wayne spent most of his life giving back to the community,” said his nephew Paul Allen, who asked for just one item from Peterson’s estate—his copy of Norman Vincent Peal’s  “The Power of Positive Thinking.” “He was truly a self-made man,” Allen added. In an effort to overcome his shyness, he said Peterson joined Toastmasters International and eventually traveled the country giving talks at various clubs.

Peterson was a Laguna Beach City Council member from 1992–2000 and the mayor of Laguna Beach from 1995–1996. “As mayor he wanted Laguna Beach to be known as The Art City,” Allen said. He also served on the city’s design review board. Plaques bearing his name for contributions to community projects can be found at Treasure Island Park and Riddle Field.

After leaving the Midwest for California, Peterson studied at Santa Ana Community College and went on to finish his degree at Cal State Long Beach. Following graduation, he took a position with the Pacific Life Insurance Company.

Wayne Peterson, left, with the “love of his life,” Terry Smith. Photo courtesy of Paul Allen.

In 1973, Peterson met Terry T. Smith, “the love of his life,” Allen said. The two began buying run-down houses and renovating them. His old college friend and Laguna local, Dennis Mesenhimer, recalled “what a stretch” it was purchasing the first house on Oak Street in the 70s for $35,000. “He taught himself to speak Spanish, with the help of the tradesmen whom he hired for various remodeling projects,” Mesenhimer said, adding that Peterson later taught English as a second language in the public school system.

“He was a wonderful Laguna Beach citizen,” said friend and neighbor since 1983, Richard Dix. “When he spoke, people listened.” Dix admired Peterson’s “green thumb” and his ability to “do his own tile work.” He also recalled Peterson’s leadership abilities during the 1993 fire, monitoring the flames coming from Laguna Canyon and advising the neighbors when it was time to start sprinkling their roofs. “He made me vice-mayor of the alley,” Dix said proudly.

Wayne Peterson, left, and Terry Smith, were known locally as generous philanthropists. In 2014, the couple enjoyed the spotlight at LCAD’s gala for their numerous contributions to the college. Photo courtesy of Paul Allen.

Over time Peterson and Smith became known as philanthropists in Laguna Beach. Peterson was a founding trustee of the Laguna Beach Community Foundation, and both were keen supporters of Laguna College of Art and Design. In 2014, they enjoyed the spotlight at LCAD’s fundraising gala for their numerous contributions to the college and its scholarship fund. “We can’t speak of Wayne without mentioning Terry. Together they were a force of nature with regard to supporting this great community and our students,” said Jonathan Burke, LCAD’s president. “ We are truly saddened by Wayne’s passing, and he and Terry will forever live on in the hearts of the LCAD community.”

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