Yolonde Byassee Peterson of Marion Beloved Marion educator and "Matriarch of the Arts," 93-year-old Yolonde Byassee Peterson took her final bow at 10:18 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021 at Heartland Regional Medical Center of Marion. She was escorted off the earthly stage with her niece by marriage, 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 lifetime of her name being 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 amazingly talented child.
Yolonde attended school in Creal Springs through 8th grade, and transferred to Marion Township High School at the avid insistence of her big brother, because Marion offered music curriculum. Her teaching career began early in life. She taught piano lessons at age 12, and dreamed about being a professional concert pianist.
In later years, Yolonde recalled that her father gave her the most important life advice, saying "Life on the road was often a lonely one with an uncertain future." Sadly, he passed unexpectedly in 1947. Yolonde made the decision to stay home, care for her mother, and pursue her education and teaching career. She faced many challenges during those years: Her health was shattered by tuberculosis, which took years to recover from and left lifelong health issues.
Fearing spread of the disease, engagement and marriage was postponed for two years after her recovery. Thereafter, she married Guy "Pete" Peterson of Creal Springs on Aug. 8, 1951, and they celebrated 70 years together before he passed in October 2021. During college and her early professional years, Yolonde faced prejudice against women, derision for her small-town roots, and jealousy from her peers.
In college, she "gigged" with the newly returned military band members of World War II, such as Gene Stieman and other big band greats, touring and playing at local venues. She was the first accompanist for the Jean Street Modern Dance Troupe, touring with them for two years. She studied with many music greats of the time: Nadia Boulanger in Paris, the foremost female teacher of composition in the twentieth century; renowned choral director Dr.
Lara Hoggard; Dr. Robert Mueller; and bandleader Fred Waring, whom she considered a brilliant man. Waring, she said, "taught me the most I ever gained from actual teaching, having 77 years in show business and holding 500 patents." Mrs. Peterson graduated from SIU-C in 1957, with a Bachelor of Music Education degree. During her career as a choral director, she served many times as festival accompanist or conductor, and was honored to conduct the 1,250-voice elementary choir at SIU's "Music Under the Stars" in the early 1960s.
She taught nearly 40 years in Marion Unit District 2 schools in Creal Springs, Pittsburg, and at Marion Junior High and High School. Mrs. Peterson brought the Broadway stage to MHS in 1964, premiering "Oklahoma" with her students as the cast. She produced classic Broadway musicals from then until she retired in 1989.
She inspired excellence in her students by exemplifying excellence in herself. She served in all capacities as music and orchestra director, costume designer, set designer, choreographer, stage manager, publicity maker and marketing director. She also brought Hollywood-like glamour to Marion with her sequined gowns from New York.
Her intent was for students to feel a part of something very special and she dressed the part 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 first swing choir in the area. Through the years the MHS Show Choir made many guest appearances and were the first Downstate group to ever perform for the Illinois Association of School Boards in Chicago in 1982. Mrs.
Peterson graduated from SIU-C with a Master of Science in Education in June 1970. In 1973 she began another chapter of her impactful career. Mayor Robert Butler shared Jaclyn Hancock's vision to reclaim the abandoned Orpheum Theater and repurpose it as a cultural and fine arts center. Yolonde was asked to spearhead that endeavor.
In August 1974, the former Orpheum Theater reopened as the Marion Cultural and Civic Center. The grand opening was held May 9, 1975, with Will Rogers as the featured performer. The Civic Center came to be considered Marion's "crown jewel," with the total refurbishment, expansion and preservation of the 1922 theater.
The MCCC hosted many greats during her 48-year tenure as chairman of the board; among them were Van Cliburn, Red Skelton, Debbie Reynolds, Reba McEntire and Ferrante and Teicher. The Civic Center was tragically destroyed by fire March 9, 1997. During a news conference, with ashes still burning, she and the mayor vowed the center would rise again like a phoenix.
After years of fundraising, including donations from private and corporate sectors, the rebuilding began. Yolonde Peterson could be seen on the construction site nearly every day with her hard hat perched upon her coifed hair. When Gov. Rod Blagojevich toured the new center upon completion in 2004, "Mrs.
P" donned her hat and proceeded to climb the rung ladder to the roof with him behind her. She was 76 years old! She served as chairman of the board from 1973 until Dec. 1, 2021. From 1970 to 1985, she and her husband conducted Foreign Study League Educational Tours for 488 persons from Marion and other states, traveling to 11 European countries, including several Mediterranean and Greek islands. Mrs.
Peterson knew no limits to her service and was active in many civic groups and charitable causes. She was musical director at First United Methodist Church in Marion for over 43 years; taught private piano, organ, accordion and vocal lessons for 50 years; was a member of the Marion Cultural and Civic Center Board for 48 years; a member of the Friends Board of WSIU for six years (receiving an award for her service); a member of Marion Fortnightly Club for 17 years and Delta Kappa Gamma for 60 years; was director of volunteers for the Arts Choir for four years; a member of the JALC Women's Health Conference Committee and in other capacities for 20 years; and a member of Marion Main Street for six years.
She was a longtime member of Marion First Baptist Church. Yolonde Peterson was presented with 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 Greater Marion Area 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 former students surprised her with a "flash mob" tribute in December of 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. Mrs.
Peterson has left a legacy that reaches around the globe, with many students following in her footsteps as music educators and performers. Her presence will be missed by former students, friends and associates. Surviving family members include nephews and spouse, James Byassee (wife Linda Pinson) and Don Byassee, all of Marion; great-nieces 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, E.J.
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 dear friends John, Jenna (De Mattei), and David Fletcher, Caroline (Fletcher) and husband, Austin Mallow, all of Marion; Gina (De Mattei) and husband, Larry Crippen of Mooresville, North Carolina; Dr.
Clay and Lety De Mattei of Marion; Johnny De Mattei of Berthoud, Colorado; Mike and Ronda De Mattei of Marion; J.J. and Teresa De Mattei of Centralia; Ed and Gloria Davis of St. Louis; as well as Barbara Bradley and Sue McCoskey, both of Marion. Mrs. Peterson was preceded in death by her husband, Guy H.
Peterson, her parents and her two siblings; as well as her niece, Barbara Jane Taylor. The family is grateful to her dedicated caregivers, Donna Austin, Pam Girdner, Heather Duplantis, Brenda Williamson, Shane Taylor and the ICU staff at Heartland Regional Medical Center. Arrangements have been entrusted to Wilson-McReynolds Funeral Home in Marion. Visitation will be held from 4 to 7 p.m.
on Monday, Jan. 3, at the Marion Cultural and Civic Center, located on the Marion Tower Square. The funeral service will begin at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in the Yolonde B. Peterson Performance Hall at the Marion Cultural and Civic Center, with Dr. Bob Dickerson and Rev. Alan Rhein presiding. Interment will follow next to her husband, in Rose Hill Cemetery of Marion. The family requests for those who prefer, memorial contributions be given to "MCCC Foundation Yolonde B.
Peterson Scholarship." Memorial contributions may be mailed in care of Wilson-McReynolds Funeral Home, 900 N. Court St., Marion, IL, 62959. Memorial envelopes will be available at the Civic Center and funeral home. To leave an online condolence of memory visit www.wilsonmcreynolds.com. For additional information call the funeral home at (618) 993-2131. Due to the executive order by the governor of Illinois and the request of the family, for all those attending the visitation and funeral service inside, the wearing of a face mask and practice of social distancing is required.