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From Education to Ice Cream

Mayor Tom Peterson retires as teacher, launches career as ice cream vendor.

On his first day of retirement after 30 years of teaching, Clifton Mayor Tom Peterson left his ice cream store in the hands of his employees and sat down to chat for a few minutes.

"It's kind of an unusual feeling, knowing I'm not a teacher anymore," he said, although he added that he thought he would enjoy retirement. "I've been busy all day, but I was busy on my time," he said.

Peterson noted that retirement would leave him more time to focus on his mayoral duties and running Peterson's Ice Cream Depot, which he opened with his wife less than two months ago in their detached garage.

Although he spent his first 14 years of teaching as a physical-education instructor at Laurel Ridge Elementary, Peterson was a coach at Robinson Secondary School since 1977. There, he coached many of his former elementary school students in baseball and basketball. "I really enjoyed watching the kids grow up," he said, adding that he also got to know the students' families.

Two of his elementary-school students, who he also coached at Robinson, are now pitchers in the major leagues, he said. "So I get to watch these kids on TV, knowing I was a part of their lives from when they were 5 years old until when they were 18 years old. And that's very rewarding."

WHEN HE became Robinson's head baseball coach in 1990, he moved his teaching career from Laurel Ridge to Robinson. Peterson described the transition from teaching elementary school to eighth-grade P.E. as "difficult." Whereas the younger children were enthusiastic about P.E., in the eighth grade, "it's hard to get kids to do things," he said. "But I found a way."

In time, Peterson again found his niche. After moving on to ninth- and 10th-grade P.E., he eventually became a specialist, teaching health full time. He noted that the health unit is often taught by P.E. teachers, but a large part of the curriculum is sex education, "and a lot of the teachers don't feel comfortable talking about that." However, he said, "It was fun for me, because you talk about subjects 10th-graders want to talk about."

Meanwhile, he had stopped coaching in 2000 because, as a single father at the time, he had needed more time to devote to his children, he said.

Mike McGurk, Robinson's athletic director, said that Peterson was one of only three baseball coaches in the school's history, although his coaching tenure was over by the time McGurk became the athletic director four years ago. However, McGurk has overseen both the health program and the summer athletic camp, which Peterson has helped to run for the last 15 years.

"One of the things he always prided himself on was that he was always going to do whatever was going to help the kids," said McGurk. He described Peterson as fiercely loyal, particularly to his colleagues in the Health and Physical Education Department. "He definitely knows how to work with people," he said. McGurk said replacing Peterson as the school's health specialist would be "very difficult," given his level of experience.

PETERSON IS A veteran of the Fairfax County school system not only as a teacher and coach, but also as a student. Having grown up in Springfield, he graduated from Lee High School. He then attended George Mason University and six years ago, he moved from Burke Station to Clifton. "So I've lived my entire life within about a 12-mile radius," he said.

Although he was relatively new in town, if not new to the area, two groups of people approached him and asked him to run in last years' mayoral election, said Peterson. "Clifton is the greatest place to live," he said. "But there were a lot of people who weren't getting along." Those who had asked him to run had thought he would be able to bring people together, he said. A year later, said Peterson, "I really believe people are getting along."

Town Council member Mike Anton agreed. "I honestly believe there are less conflicts in this town," said Anton, noting that more town committees are working together. "He's a good coach for this town," he said of Peterson.

Anton said that one of Peterson's first actions after being elected was to hold a reception at his house, where anyone was free to sign up for any committees on which they wanted to serve. He said the approach was an effective way of "bringing everybody together and giving everybody an opportunity to participate in his tenure."

AS FOR THE Ice Cream Depot, Peterson said he and his wife, who have now been married almost two years, had known he would have to find "something else to replace teaching in my life." Since there was no other ice cream store in a town where both locals and visitors do a lot of walking, and since they "both love ice cream," they decided an ice cream shop would be a good idea, he said.

In the store's short existence, "business has blossomed beyond our wildest expectations," he said. "We had hoped to build up to this level of business by the end of summer." At one point, he had to excuse himself because word had come that the shop's employees were having trouble keeping up with the clientele.

Fourteen part-time workers are now employed at the shop, including his and his wife's three children, said Peterson. The rest, he said, were handpicked from his classes and from his wife's dental hygiene business. "I hope I can keep getting employees like this, now that I'm retired," said Peterson, noting that he would no longer have a pool of students from which to recruit.

Later in the week, he said, he would be meeting with the Health Department because he plans to start selling hot dogs, as well as ice cream.

Peterson said he had not yet planned out his retirement beyond running the town and his shop. "I want to keep it at that for a while," he said.