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Richard Widmark: A Princeton legend

Classmates — Becoming Richard Widmark

Lars Louis Magnus Persson Peterson was born April 20, 1842, in Småland, Jamtland, Sweden, and migrated to the United States with his parents circa 1850. He married Fredrika Sophia Dahlberg, Feb. 4, 1869, and they had eight children, six of their own and two as foster children — Christina Sophia, July 24, 1864 (fostered in 1869), Oscar Emil, June 19, 1868 (fostered in 1869), Albert Herman in April 24, 1871, William Edward, Jan. 5, 1873, Sara Maria (Mary), Dec. 22, 1875, Elmer Joseph, May 25, 1878, Rosa Olivia, March 4, 1880, and Hilma Sophia, Oct. 9, 1883.   

Albert Herman Peterson married Sophia Johnson, Feb. 26, 1896, and they had four children — Delbert Peterson born May 9, 1897, in Wyanet, Gladys Natalie (Peterson) Nelson (Morris) born Oct.17, 1899, in Wyanet, Ruth Alberta (Peterson) Seidel (Glenn) born April 26, 1906 in Bureau, and Lester Robert Peterson born March 1, 1914, in Bureau. Albert and his family lived in Wyanet, Henry in 1911, and then Bureau. Albert H. Peterson and his family arrived in Princeton by 1920.

Carl Henry Widmark, another man with Swedish roots, moved to Henry in 1923 and eventually to Princeton in 1925. Carl H. Widmark, born as Carl Odin (Odén) on Jan. 23, 1892, was fostered by a Swedish-American couple, Solomon and Carrie Widmark, after the death of his natural parents at a young age. Solomon was from Sweden and Carrie was from Norway, and they immigrated to the United States. Carl adopted the Widmark name as a mark of respect to his foster parents. Carl’s son, Richard, and Albert’s son, Lester, both born in 1914, would be classmates and have a friendship spanning over 50 years.

The Peterson family, like the Widmark family, lived in several towns in Illinois before finally settling in Princeton. It would be permanent for the Albert Peterson family but only a seven-year stop for Carl, wife Ethel Mae, and sons, Richard and Donald Widmark. Seven years that would bond two young men of Swedish heritage, Lester Peterson and Richard Widmark, for a lifetime.

Albert Peterson was in the hardware business for a short time and had a store at 540 S. Main in Princeton, in partnership with Charles D. Lowe. Albert and Sophia are farming on Lars property by 1914 when young Lester is born. They are living at 620 Park Ave. West which they bought in 1905. Albert’s parents, Lars and Fredrika are now living in Princeton also, having relocated from Wyanet. Lars Peterson dies on Oct. 25, 1915, and Albert inherits the farm.

It is now 1926, and the Albert Peterson family is living at 316 Park Ave. West. Albert bought this property in 1904 and was building this home while they lived at the 620 Park Ave. West residence. The Carl Widmark family, new to Princeton in 1925 has moved twice already, and in late 1926, they too are living at 521 Park Ave. West. Lester’s grandmother, Lars Peterson’s wife, Fredrika, dies Dec. 4, 1926. Richard Widmark and Lester Peterson are neighbors as is Tom Best who lives at 423 Park Ave. West. Gail Castner had lived across the street from Richard when the Widmark family lived above the bakery they ran at 450 S. Main St.

The four boys were becoming friends — geography and similar interests are the glue. They became even closer when they all attended Logan Junior High School in 1927 and 1928. The boys had their share of adolescent pranks, like most young men of that age. Lester, Richard, Tom and Gail were atop someone’s house and were bombarding the local ladies in their bonnets with water balloons one Easter Sunday in early April.

Tragedy then darkened the sky for the Peterson family on April 26, 1928, when Lester’s older brother Delbert, by 27 years, is killed in a train accident. Delbert helped Albert on the farm both before and after serving in World War I, besides working at Carlson Clothing in Princeton, and was on his way into town from the farm when the tragedy occurred. He had married Marie Page in 1920, and they had two children. She died July 24, 1991.

Lester is a freshman at Princeton High School in 1929 along with Richard Widmark, Tom Best and Gail Castner. The four young men are in many activities together during their four years in high school. Lester has a part-time job working at the Ben Franklin store at 622 S. Main during his freshman year, and Richard works at his family’s bakery, Henri’s, now at 450 S. Main. Tom Best helped his father at Best Monument Co., and Gail worked for his dad, Frank Castner, on Saturdays.

Doris Fetherston taught public speaking, English and dramatics at Princeton High School for the four years the four boys were there. She is the teacher that Richard Widmark credits with giving him the confidence to speak to an audience and feel that he was in control when doing it. She helped him find his true calling. She was popular with all four young men.

Donnabelle Fry, on the other hand, began teaching at Princeton High School during the sophomore year of Lester and his friends in 1930. She taught music, English, and psychology. It was a baptism under fire for Miss Fry. Her first year at Princeton could have been it for her as she had to weather that time putting up with the antics of the four, especially Richard Widmark, who she did not like. She survived and was a good teacher, but Widmark, Peterson, Best and Castner could be a chore, even though Lester and Gail could sing like nightingales. She went on to have a long career at Princeton, eventually teaching the children of her first students. Lester’s daughter, Susan, remembers that she could do no wrong in Donnabelle’s class, so maybe Miss Fry actually remembered and liked her father, Lester.

Lester was in Boys Choir, French Club, Science Club, Hi-Y Club and the National Athletic Scholarship Society with Richard Widmark, Tom Best and Gail Castner. They all played football together their sophomore, junior, and senior year. Lester and Gail Castner sang many duets together at many events, both in and out of school. They both had great voices. The junior class Play, “Green Stockings,” featured all four of the friends in the cast. Lester as Henry Steele and Richard Widmark as James Raleigh were two young Englishmen with their own ideas about society. Tom Best was Colonel Smith, and Gail Castner was Admiral Grice. None could have imagined that they were sharing the stage with a movie star of the future.

Lester was the class secretary during the junior year when Richard was class vice president. Richard, Lester, Tom and Gail were all class officers in at least one of their four high school years. All four of the boys were involved with the Tiger yearbook in either their junior or senior year. This four years of bonding in various school activities and sports would be the cement for friendships that would last a lifetime. Though worldwide fame was in the future for Richard Widmark, he never forgot these three high school friends.

The 63rd annual Princeton High School commencement was June 10, 1932, and it would be the start of Lester Peterson and his friends Richard Widmark, Tom Best and Gail Castner taking separate paths that would define them as individuals in their adult lives. Richard Widmark, senior class president, gave one of the two orations during the commencement; Lester and Gail Caster were two of the Senior Boy’s Sextet that sang; and all four boys were awarded membership in the National Athletic Scholarship Society. This was their last hurrah in high school. Lester Peterson, Richard Widmark, Tom Best and Gail Caster were now on their own to follow paths waiting to be taken. I’ll be back with the next part of Lester Peterson’s story in couple of weeks.

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