Remembering a Latter-day Saint feminist, lifelong Democrat and social justice warrior

1932 — 2024 • Ane Grethe Ballif Peterson became a champion for children in abuse cases.

(Courtesy) Utah community activist Grethe Ballif Peterson, 1932-2024.

Ever the optimist, Ane Grethe Ballif Peterson was born into activism.

So it was natural for the tall, stunning and stately woman of faith with a great laugh and a get-it-done work ethic to take up various causes throughout her life — from editing Exponent II, a magazine for Latter-day Saint women, to sitting on the Young Women general board for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from volunteering at the Junior League of Salt Lake City to co-founding Women Concerned About Nuclear War.

Peterson, who died April 15 at age 92, and whose life and legacy will be celebrated later this week, found a way to balance the many sides of her — wife, mother, feminist, advocate, educator, organizer and even, briefly, a Democratic candidate running against longtime U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (speaking of optimism).

One such effort stands out: her drive to do something about child abuse.

In 1988, Peterson sat on a jury for a man accused of sexually abusing his two sons. Because of problems with the boys’ testimonies (some conflicting details), jurors felt they had to acquit, but Peterson “felt horrible,” according to her daughter, Erika Peterson Munson.

She believed the children were afraid of their father and retraumatized by having to testify over and over again amid strangers in a courtroom.

“I could not sleep or stop thinking about what we could have done better for these children,” Peterson wrote in her memoir.

She met with then Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter, who created the Governor’s Task Force on Child Abuse and appointed her as chair, according to her obituary. “After three years of research, community education, and private/public partnership, the Children’s Justice Center was established with the mission of providing a child-friendly, supportive atmosphere where children could receive coordinated services during the child abuse investigative process.”

Currently, there are 26 such centers throughout the Beehive State and every year the organization bestows the Grethe Peterson Children’s Justice Award.

“If I could make one contribution in his life apart from my family,” Peterson wrote in her memoir, “this is mine.”

No matter how important, that was hardly the leader’s only contribution.

Provo childhood and Boston home

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Grethe and Chase Peterson in their Park City home in 1999. He died in 2014. She died n April 2024.

Peterson, the youngest of the four children of Algie and George Ballif, grew up on Provo’s University Avenue, where family, church and public service (her aunt was Esther Peterson, a former U.S assistant secretary of labor) wove a tapestry of connections into her DNA.

Algie Ballif was a “pillar” of the state’s Democratic Party, holding numerous public service positions including Provo school board member, two-time state legislator and president of the Utah Democratic Party.

“She saw her mother get things done in the context of Provo politics, while being friends with the Republican majority,” Munson said. Differing opinions were never “a source of conflict for her.”

After completing a history degree from Brigham Young University in three years, Grethe Peterson went back East to attend the Radcliffe Management Training program, a graduate degree in business available to women, the obituary said, “when the Harvard Business School was not.”

It was in Boston that she met her future husband, Chase Peterson, a Utah boy who was studying medicine at Harvard and eventually would rise to president of the University of Utah.

The family spent many years in Boston, at one time living in philosopher Wiliam James’ Victorian house and making it the community center for many Latter-day Saint students living and working in Cambridge.

Back in Utah

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Community activist Grethe Peterson in 1999. She died in April 2024.

The family returned in 1978 to Utah, where Grethe Peterson again took up writing, speaking and organizing.

“She really was an extrovert,” Munson said. “Her world was full of people of all different talents, and she would try to get them together to create something new.”

Even so, Peterson would tell her children everything she was doing, her daughter said. “We never felt neglected or excluded like we were sacrificing our mother.”

Taking care of children, helping them find their way, while caring about national and international issues, Munson said, “felt like it was all in the family.”

Peterson wanted, her daughter said, “to have both in her life all the time.”

Chase Peterson died in 2014, leaving her a widow for a decade. At his death, she was able “to sob with abandon,” Peterson wrote in her memoir. “It frightened my children, but it did not frighten me. I was just me, being fully and authentically me.”

She concluded the summary of her life with these words: “My dance has been joyful. May yours be as well.”

The family is hosting “a celebration of life” for Peterson on Saturday, May 25, at 11 a.m. at the Monument Park Latter-day Saint Stake Center, 1320 Wasatch Drive, Salt Lake City.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations in Peterson’s name to — where else? — Salt Lake Friends of the Children’s Justice Center.