LUTZ — If you needed to find Stella Peterson on a Sunday morning, you'd pretty much know where to look.
For 70 years, some 3,500 Sundays, Mrs. Peterson played the organ and the piano at her church. From about 1940 until 1969, she played at Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church in Illinois. For 39 years after that, she played at the First Reformed Church of Tampa in Town 'N Country.
"She donated her time," said her son, Bill Peterson. "She never ever charged the churches for playing. She did it because it was what she loved to do."
Mrs. Peterson passed away March 27 after suffering a stroke. She was 89.
Music seemed to be ingrained into Mrs. Peterson's being, her son said. She had been suffering from progressive dementia in recent years, and sometimes had trouble recognizing her own grandchildren. But when she visited the nursing home where her husband, Bob, stayed until his death last year, she'd always sit down at the piano.
From deep inside her came the memory of the hymns she loved so much. She was nearing 90 and her mind was no longer sharp, but she could play those hymns as well as ever.
"She'd sit down to play, and the residents would gather around and lean on the piano and sing along," her son said. "You'd see the people who worked there walking by, and they'd start singing."
She could play some classical pieces, but never had any real affinity for that kind of music. Even in recent months, when she could no longer play, her family could tell that she was still moved by sacred music.
"As she got older and the dementia took its toll on her, we noticed that if you played hymns on the car radio or wherever, it seemed to have a calming effect on her," Bill Peterson said.
Mrs. Peterson was born in Berwyn, Ill., to Dutch immigrants. One day when she was in her teens, her father sent her down to the corner store to buy some milk. The store was owned by a family named Peterson. She met Bob, one of the brothers who ran the store. They were a couple ever after. They married in 1944 and remained together until his death.
They lived first in an apartment above her parents' house. As their family grew — they eventually had four sons — they moved to larger quarters. Her husband owned restaurants, and business opportunities took them to several Illinois cities.
In 1969, the Peterson family, including their grown sons, moved to Lutz. They bought and operated a company that contracted with Hillsborough County to provide garbage collection services for the northwestern part of the county for many years.
Music and religion had always been integral elements of Mrs. Peterson's life. She played the organ and sang in church choirs for as long as anyone could remember. Soon after the family moved to Lutz, she began playing at the First Reformed Church.
She'd also perform, on occasion, for weddings and other special events. That was the only time she'd accept money for playing. But even then, she didn't profit from her music.
"From what we've been able to tell, we believe that any money she'd get from playing at weddings, she'd give it back to people who were in need," her son said. "People from her church would always tell us, 'She really helped us out when we were going though a tough time.' She had a good life. She was a good person and a good Christian."
In addition to her son Bill, Mrs. Peterson is survived by sons Kenneth, Thomas and James, 11 grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and a sister.
Marty Clear can be reached at [email protected]