Marion’s beloved educator and “matriarch of the arts,” 93-year-old Yolonde Byassee Peterson bowed at 10:18 pm Tuesday, December 28, 2021 at Heartland Regional Medical Center in Marion. She was escorted off the earthly stage with her step-niece, Linda Byassee, and dear neighbor, Jenna Fletcher, by her side.
She was born Thelma Yolonde Byassee on July 28, 1928, to Sarah Elizabeth (Vaughn) Byassee and James Henry Byassee of Creal Springs, IL. Foreshadowing a life of her name spelled and pronounced incorrectly, her first name was recorded as “Helen” on her birth certificate and had to be reissued.
“Yolonde” was the youngest of three children, Rosella Byassee (Taylor) and James Howard Byassee, who were 16 and 13 years older respectively.
She was a beautiful and incredibly talented child. Yolonde attended Creal Springs School until Grade 8 and transferred to Marion Township High School at the eager insistence of her older brother as Marion offered a music program.
Her teaching career began early in life. She taught piano at age 12 and dreamed of becoming a professional concert pianist. Years later, Yolonde recalled her father giving her the most important life advice, saying that “life on the road is often lonely with an uncertain future”.
Sadly, he passed away suddenly in 1947. Yolonde made the decision to stay home, care for her mother, and continue her education and teaching career.
She faced many challenges during these years: her health was shattered by tuberculosis, which took years to recover and left health problems for life. Fearing the spread of the disease, the engagement and marriage were postponed for two years after his recovery. She subsequently married Guy “Pete” Peterson of Creal Springs on August 8, 1951, and they celebrated 70 years together before his death in October 2021.
During her university studies and her early professional years, Yolonde faced prejudices against women, the derision of her small town roots and the jealousy of her peers. In college, she “performed” with new members of the WWII military group, such as Gene Stieman and other big band greats, on tour and performing at local venues. She was the first accompanist of the Jean Street Modern Dance Troupe, touring with them for two years.
She studied with many greats of the music of the time: Nadia Boulanger in Paris, the main woman professor of composition in the 20th century; renowned choir director Dr. Lara Hoggard; Dr Robert Mueller; and conductor Fred Waring, whom she considered a brilliant man.
Waring, she said, “taught me the most that I have ever gained from a real education, being 77 years in show business and holding 500 patents.”
Ms. Peterson graduated from SIU-C in 1957 with a BA in Music Education.
During her career as a choir director, she has served several times as a festival accompanist or conductor and had the honor of directing the elementary choir of 1,250 voices at “Music Under the Stars” from SIU in the early 1960s. She taught for nearly 40 years at Marion Unit District 2 schools in Creal Springs, Pittsburg, and at Marion Junior High and High School.
Ms. Peterson brought the Broadway scene to MHS in 1964, creating “Oklahoma” with her students as actors. She produced classic Broadway musicals until her retirement in 1989. She inspired excellence in her students by exemplifying excellence in itself. She has held all the positions of musical and orchestral director, costume designer, decorator, choreographer, director, publicist and marketing director.
She also brought Hollywood glamor to Marion with her sequined New York dresses. Her intention was for the students to feel like they were a part of something very special and she dressed the role of the showman to give them excitement and pride in the production.
In 1967-68, after studying with Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians, she formed the region’s first swing choir. Over the years, the MHS Show Choir has made numerous guest appearances and were the first Downstate group to perform for the Illinois Association of School Boards in Chicago in 1982.
Ms. Peterson obtained a Masters of Science in Education from UES-C in June 1970.
In 1973, she began another chapter of her landmark career. Mayor Robert Butler shared Jaclyn Hancock’s vision to reclaim the abandoned Orpheum Theater and turn it into a center of culture and fine arts. Yolonde has been invited to lead this company. In August 1974, the former Orpheum Theater reopened as the Marion Cultural and Civic Center. The inauguration took place on May 9, 1975, with Will Rogers as the featured artist.
The Civic Center became Marion’s “crown jewel” with the complete renovation, expansion and preservation of the theater in 1922. The MCCC hosted many greats during his 48-year tenure as president from the administration board; among them were Van Cliburn, Red Skelton, Debbie Reynolds, Reba McEntire and Ferrante and Teicher.
The Civic Center was tragically destroyed by fire on March 9, 1997. At a press conference, as the ashes still burned, she and the mayor vowed the center would rise like a phoenix. After years of fundraising, including donations from the private and corporate sectors, the reconstruction has begun.
Yolonde Peterson could be seen on the construction site almost every day with her helmet perched on her combed hair. When Governor Rod Blagojevich visited the new center when it was completed in 2004, “Mrs. P” put on her hat and climbed the ladder to the roof with him behind her. She was 76!
She was Chairman of the Board of Directors from 1973 to December 1, 2021.
From 1970 to 1985, she and her husband organized Foreign Studies League educational tours for 488 people from Marion and other states, traveling to 11 European countries, including several Mediterranean and Greek islands.
Ms. Peterson knew no bounds in her service and was active in many civic groups and charitable causes. She was musical director of the First United Methodist Church in Marion for over 43 years; taught private piano, organ, accordion and singing for 50 years; was a member of the board of directors of the Marion Cultural and Civic Center for 48 years; WSIU Friends Council for six years (recipient of an award for service); member of the Marion Fortnightly Club for 17 years and of Delta Kappa Gamma for 60 years; was director of volunteers for the arts choir for four years; JALC conference committee member on women’s health and other capacities for 20 years; and a member of Marion Main Street for six years. She was a long-time member of the Marion First Baptist Church.
Yolonde Peterson received the Woman of Achievement Award in 1979; the mayor’s service award in 2002; and the Award of Excellence for Service to the Performing Arts in 2004 by the Marion Metropolitan Region Chamber of Commerce.
In 2004, she was recognized as “A Leader Among Us” by the Southern Illinoisan Business Journal. She received the SIU Inspiring Woman of Achievement Award in 2006. Her alumni surprised her with a “flash mob” tribute in December 2011. In 2018, the MCCC auditorium was named in her honor, “The Yolonde B. Peterson Performance Hall “. “She was recognized as a ‘Marion Star’ in 2018, by Swinford Publications.
Ms. Peterson left a legacy that spans the world, with many students following in her footsteps as educators and performers of music. His presence will be missed by former students, friends and associates.
The surviving family members include the nephews and spouse, James Byassee (wife Linda Pinson) and Don Byassee, all of Marion; grandnieces and nephews, Elizabeth Byassee Shore (husband Jeff), of Marion, Amanda Yolonde Byassee Gott (husband Ashley) of Marion, Margaret Byassee Edmondson (husband Shawn) of O’Fallon, Missouri, EJ Byassee and Amanda Ross Byassee of Marion , and Kevin Cox (wife Mary) of Arnold, Maryland; nieces, Kara Cox Santi of Marion and Cammy Cox Duggins (husband Mark) of Golconda, Illinois; great-great-nieces and nephews, Benjamin Shore of St. Louis, Victoria Shore of Marion, Jamie, Alex and Jeremy Gott, all of Marion, Henry and Evangeline Edmondson of O’Fallon, Missouri, Rylee and Jason Byassee of Marion, Max Duggins (wife Natacha) of Charlotte, North Carolina, Samuel Duggins of Long Beach, Mississippi, and Nico Santi of Marion; and great-great-great-nephew, Silas Duggins of Charlotte, NC.
Yolonde leaves her dear friends John, Jenna (De Mattei) and David Fletcher, Caroline (Fletcher) and her husband, Austin Mallow, all of Marion; Gina (De Mattei) and her husband, Larry Crippen of Mooresville, North Carolina; Dr Clay and Lety De Mattei from Marion; Johnny De Mattei from Berthoud, Colorado; Mike and Ronda De Mattei from Marion; JJ and Teresa De Mattei from Centralia; Ed and Gloria Davis of St. Louis; as well as Barbara Bradley and Sue McCoskey, both of Marion.
Ms. Peterson was predeceased by her husband, Guy H. Peterson, her parents and two siblings; as well as his niece, Barbara Jane Taylor.
The family is grateful to their dedicated caregivers, Donna Austin, Pam Girdner, Heather Duplantis, Brenda Williamson, Shane Taylor and the ICU staff at Heartland Regional Medical Center.
Arrangements are in the care of Wilson-McReynolds Funeral Home in Marion.
Tours will be held from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday, January 3 at the Marion Culture and Civic Center, located in Marion Tower Square.
The funeral will begin at 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday, January 4, 2022, in the Yolonde B. Peterson Performance Hall of the Marion Culture and Civic Center, chaired by Dr. Bob Dickerson and Reverend Alan Rhein.
Interment will follow next to her husband at Rose Hill Cemetery of Marion.
Family requests for those who prefer, memorial contributions be made to the “MCCC Yolonde B. Peterson Foundation Scholarship”. Memorial contributions can be mailed to the care of Wilson-McReynolds Funeral Home, 900 N. Court St., Marion, IL, 62959. Memorial envelopes will be available at the Civic Center and the funeral home.
To leave condolences online, visit www.wilsonmcreynolds.com. For more information, call the funeral home at (618) 993-2131.
Due to the Illinois Governor’s Order in Council and the family’s request, for anyone attending visitation and funeral indoors, wearing a face mask and practicing social distancing are mandatory.