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‘His goal in life was to help’ — Laguna Beach remembers late former mayor Wayne Peterson

Wayne Peterson, left, and his longtime partner Terry Smith attend the Laguna College of Art and Design’s 25th Annual Collector’s Choice in June 2014.
Wayne Peterson, left, and his longtime partner Terry Smith attend the Laguna College of Art + Design’s Collector’s Choice gala in June 2014. Peterson died last month.
(Courtesy of Eric Stoner)

Wayne Peterson always had a smile on his face when you greeted him.

“He just loved life and he loved people,” Laguna College of Art and Design President Jonathan Burke said Tuesday.

“His goal was, as much as he could, to make the world and his community a better place to live and work,” Burke added. “He ... [was] just the most generous, friendly, supportive and magnanimous individual that I can remember.”

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Peterson, a former Laguna Beach mayor, died Sept. 22, just five days before his 80th birthday. His cause of death could not be confirmed as of Wednesday, but he “passed away peacefully,” according to an online obituary.

The Omaha, Neb.-born property manager was first elected to the Laguna City Council in 1992 and served until 2000.

Several major events that shaped the city took place during his council tenure including the 1993 Laguna firestorm, a 1995 flood and construction of the heavily contested Top of the World reservoir in 1996.

Memorial services for Peterson were held Friday at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Ave. About 100 people attended.

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Christopher Gilbertson, who lives in Anaheim, said he knew Peterson for about 20 years. The two were part of the Orange County chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a nationwide organization that represents LGBTQ conservatives and allies.

Gilbertson said the two previously served together on the chapter’s board, and Peterson used to host backyard summer barbecues for the group in the 1990s.

"[Peterson] was generally a very friendly person,” Gilbertson said. “Anybody could come up and talk to him and he knew quite a lot of people in Laguna Beach.”

Gilbertson said he remembers Peterson as a good conversationalist, honest and forthcoming — “an all-around good guy.”

“He was quite gregarious and he was known to be quite the entertainer,” Gilbertson said. “Some of his parties were legendary, especially his Christmas parties.”

After relocating from the Midwest, Peterson attended Cal State Long Beach, where he received his bachelor’s degree in finance in 1965 and a master’s degree in business in 1968.

Prior to joining the council, Peterson served Laguna Beach as a planning commissioner from 1985 to 1991 and was on the Design Review Board from 1983 to 1985.

His Laguna council tenure included a stint as mayor from 1995 to 1996.

When he was elevated to the mayor’s chair, Peterson stressed the importance of helping Laguna “recover our sense of community” — a feeling, he said, that had been especially apparent following the natural disasters that plagued the city in the ‘90s.

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“It shouldn’t take a disaster to draw us together,” he said in December 1995.

Peterson’s community service didn’t end when he left City Hall. He later helped spearhead creation of the Laguna Beach Community Foundation, an organization that officially launched in 2009 and encourages philanthropy in the city.

Mary Fegraus, another of the foundation’s co-founders, described Peterson as “a Laguna treasure.” The two served together on the Planning Commission in the 1980s.

“The thing about Wayne is that he truly loved Laguna Beach and did everything he could to help the various causes and make this a very special place to live,” she said. “I always admired that he was a pursuer of the facts. He wanted to make sure that the information was correct and it was detailed ... He could also be very outspoken at times, but then he’d revert to being a gentleman and making sure that everything was done correctly when we were dealing with city things.”

Peterson and his longtime partner Terry Smith also contributed significantly to the Laguna College of Art and Design providing more than $350,000 in scholarships for students over the years. Peterson also was named a trustee there in 2002.

Burke described Peterson and Smith as “just two of the greatest guys.”

“They loved [the] students,” Burke said. “They didn’t have any children and the way they connected with students was like having children, like having their very own. What they wanted to do was help students. They ... were always the first to step up in any way to help any student that was in any kind of financial distress.”

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Peterson, Fegraus added, “was just one of those special people — and Terry was, too. They came together.”

Burke said he remembers seeing how touched Smith, who died in 2016, and Peterson were at the 2014 Collector’s Choice gala and fundraiser, where the community honored them and their contributions to the college.

“We lost someone that was extraordinarily civic-minded,” Burke said of Peterson. “His goal in life was to help in any way he could, whether that was through participation on a board ... city council or being a mayor, being a teacher.”

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