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Meet Clifton's New Mayor Tom Peterson

From baseball coach to mayor, Tom Peterson uses the same theory to approach any group.

“I like to surround myself with good people, give all of them certain responsibilities and let them work,” said Peterson, a five-year resident of Clifton who was elected mayor in May.

By delegating responsibilities, each member of the team, or in this case, the Clifton Town Council, has a sense of ownership, which can only help to make things better.

A lifetime resident of Fairfax County, Peterson grew up in Springfield and graduated from Lee High School before going on to attend George Mason University, where he received his masters degree in educational administration.

“I wanted to be an athletic director, until I realized how much time they spent at the school,” said Peterson, who instead coached baseball at Robinson Secondary School until last year.

His career began in the Fairfax County Public School System in 1977 and will end next year at the completion of the 2006-07 school year, at the same time he ends his first year as mayor of Clifton.

“I have a great time teaching 10th grade health at Robinson because we talk about things high school students want to talk about,” he said. He decided to stop coaching at the school when his own son, Turner, now 11, began to play baseball.

Peterson's involvement in the small town began with picking up trash at Clifton Day when he first moved into town in 2001.

“I’ve known about Clifton since the 1970s, when a lot of these homes were raggedy,” said Peterson, who lives in a home that was restored by Jim Hricko, who is credited with restoring many of the historic homes inside the town limits.

Restoration will be among the top priorities for the new Town Council, which will be sworn into office during ceremony at the town’s landmark caboose on June 26.

“The biggest challenge is communication,” he said.

One way to encourage town residents to become more involved is by offering town meetings on a “quarterly or semi-annual basis,” which will be conducted in a format similar to public hearings, Peterson said. “People will be able to talk and brainstorm and share their ideas,” he said.

In the past few weeks, Peterson said he’s had the chance to get to know his council a little better, and he’s confident they will be able to govern well, despite his own lack of prior political experience.

“I think my coaching background helps with that,” he said. “When you’re a coach, you do your best to prepare so that when you play a big game, you’ve got the best chance to win. The quality of the town council-elect is very strong. They’re outstanding people.”

Peterson said his personal goal is to “see everyone in town talking to each other on the street and attending events together.”

Some tensions have arisen in the town recently, Peterson said, and he hopes the new council will play a role in defusing those problems.

“This is a small town, and small towns can be like families,” he said. “When something rough happens, we all pull together. We’ll pull the people here together even more.”

WHEN PETERSON first began coaching, he said he received the best advice from Bob Menefee, another Robinson coach.

“He said to me that as long as you’re prepared, you’ll experience success,” Peterson said. “That’s lead everything I’ve done in my life.”

Looking ahead to his retirement from Robinson next year, Peterson said he’d like to continue coaching his son’s baseball league and spending more time with his family, which includes daughters Rachel, 15, and Carleigh, 14, both students at Robinson, and his wife of nine months, Jean.

“We’d like to open an ice cream shop in our garage,” Peterson said of his retirement plans. “This town is a wonderful place. I love to sit in front of my house and watch people walk by.”

Newly elected council member Lane Johnston said she’s confident Peterson will be a good leader.

“He is willing to delegate responsibilities and is willing to give each of us duties,” she said. “Everyone will have ownership in the council.”

Approaching town government from a coach’s background will help to keep the council working as a team, Johnston said.

“Tom will be a spectacular leader. He’s so willing to listen to other people and that will make a big difference,” she said.

Neighbor Pam Wallace agreed, adding that Peterson has “a knack for bringing people together.”

Wallace and her husband, Bob, have known Peterson since he was their son’s physical education teacher 10 years ago. They now share a common property line in their backyards.

“He’s so positive, it’s what we’ve been needing in Clifton for a long time,” Wallace said. “He’ll bring a fresh approach, something different to the council.”

Peterson has become a well-known and respected resident of the town in the past few years, someone who “admits he has a lot to learn. He loves people and people love him,” Wallace said.