Often in a hierarchy, one starts at the lower level before moving to a larger leadership position. Of course, practically speaking this doesn’t always work out.
Jim Peterson, who has held a wide variety of commands within the American Legion, got his start not as a post commander but as a county commander.
“I made the mistake of going to one meeting, and they elected me at the next meeting and I wasn’t even there,” Peterson said.
Peterson spent a year traveling to the monthly meetings throughout Webster County, before moving closer to home and being elected post legion commander in Gowrie.
“I learned a little bit from being county commander. Then when I was post commander I learned a lot,” Peterson said.
The American Legion Peterson Post 431 of Gowrie may share Jim Peterson’s name, but he says he’s not related to the founder. There are just that many Petersons in the area.
“My grandmother — there were five girls. Three of them married Petersons, and not one of them was related,” Peterson said.
His great-great-grandfather originally bought a parcel of land from the Louisiana Purchase, Peterson said, after he moved here in 1854. On his mother’s side, Peterson’s roots go back to the Mayflower.
“We have a family tree…it shows John Alden who came over on the Mayflower was my grandfather, like nine generations ago,” he said.
Peterson was drafted in 1971, and was sent to West Germany. After two years in the Army, Peterson came home and joined the Iowa Army National Guard, also joining the Legion at that time.
From there, he transferred to the Army Reserve, and retired after 30 total years of service.
Peterson worked his way up to district commander by 2004, then ran for one of five vice commanders in the Department of Iowa and was elected.
“Then I ran for department commander, 2015-16 I was elected to that,” he said. “So I spent the year running around the state of Iowa as the department commander, and put 35,000 miles on a van we have. The department supplies the van.”
Peterson now serves on a national committee called the Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission.
“We do what we can to help veterans, and get benefits for veterans and keep the benefits we have,” he said. “We’re not a political organization, but we are a veteran’s services organization, and if we don’t fight for our benefits, who’s going to fight for us?”
The original GI Bill in the 1940s was one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed, he said, because of how many people it gave an education.
“It helped educate so many people, they say it’s one of the reasons we have a middle class today,” he said. “And we’ve done a lot to keep expanding the GI Bill. We lobby Congress every year.”
Peterson was also a charter member of the Gowrie Jaycees, which has since disbanded. He helped to start a new group, the Gowrie Growth Group, which holds fundraisers, puts on events, and donates back to the community all year long.
He also has been on the Southwest Webster Emergency Medical Service for about 24 years, often driving the ambulance but sometimes assisting the emergency medical technician in the back.
It’s comforting, he said, for those having an emergency to be able to look up and see someone they know is coming to help.
“There’s a calming effect,” he said. “I’d rather make life easier for somebody than make it harder.
“When I was in the Army I had to help bag a guy one time. It didn’t bother me.”
After one call with a language barrier, Peterson decided the ambulance needed placards with Spanish phrases on them.
“So we could point to something, you know, ‘We are the ambulance.’ Ambulancia,” he said. “We can kind of say the words, but we can point to it. ‘Where do you hurt?'”
Peterson has always found multiple ways to serve the community, and he has no plans to leave the area his ancestors came from.
“I’ve been around the world. I’ve found a couple places that would be nice to live, Sweden, Germany,” said Peterson. “This is home.
“I like the change in seasons. I don’t like traffic. Gowrie has an electric generating plant. I think the longest I’ve been without power is six hours. And Gowrie has a lot going for it.
“Our kids went skating all the time when they were little. We have a clinic, a pharmacy, a grocery store, we’ve got mechanics, electricians. If you’re not looking for anything big. And like I say, I know the people.
“This is where my roots are. I’ve never found any place I wanted to go otherwise.”