This may be a sad day as we make our final farewell to my mother, Dr. Stella Petersen, but it is also a celebration of a life fully lived. A life that has been, not only impactful, but significant for so many. Let us not be sad, but recognize what we were given by this incredibly passionate and selfless woman. She was more than my Mother; she was my teacher, my inspiration, my hero. Though we may not have agreed on everything – who I am today is a product of who she was. In giving me life, she laid down a strong foundation, became my lighthouse, and my compass.
I cannot chronicle her life here, as to do full justice is nothing short of a book or documentary. There is no starting point or end point with my mother, as she is someone who will live longer than her years. She has been a legacy creator and an inspiration of legacies. I am but one of her many products. She was more a teacher to me than a mother. As a mother, she gave me life, loved me with all my faults and was at my side always in various ways. She had her shortcomings….. like not being the best cook. I remember many a burnt or undercooked meal because she had things far more important to accomplish, like grading her student’s papers, tutoring and mentoring. It are those accomplishments that made her more than a mother – a truly great teacher, not just to me, but for so many generations. As a teacher, the sacrifices she made for our family and for her community and future generations is what has made her one of my greatest heroes.
My mother was ahead of her times; a visionary and a trail blazer. She did not believe in or accept glass ceilings and broke through so many for herself and others. As a woman she defied the system. She went to school, to universities and was part of shaping a future for South Africa very few women of her era were engaged in or passionate about. She was a fighter. She was not afraid to take on leaders, be they corporations or governments, or an unjust system like Apartheid. I have seen her engaged with impoverished people we used to deliver cloths to on a farm in Wolsely, and I have spent time with her around governors and the former president of Bermuda, and always she was the same curious, gracious woman, I have known all my life.
Stella expected the best out of all of us. For many who remember her, she was our teacher. I remember after my operations how every morning in the car when she drove me to school, we did math tables or spelling, my two weakest subjects. I did not enjoy those rides, but am thankful today for this tempering, as an investor and an award winning author. She taught me that life was not always fair, and that we have to work harder and smarter. She taught me grit. She exposed me to ideas, to places, to people and it was she who laid down the foundation that nothing was impossible. She taught by example, with passion, purpose and dedication. Every moment was a teachable opportunity for her.
Her impact has reached across oceans and around our globe in ways we will never know. She may not have had the recognition as a Mother Theresa or the same reach, but she made impacts that none of us could ever calculate. Just over a year ago I was in Dr Dilshaad Brink’s Surgery Clinic getting a check up and there was a photo of Mom. Even though I knew a bit of Dr Dilshaad’s story, Darlene had not. Dilshaad spoke of years ago filling out a university application form. Mom asked to see what she had done. It was to nursing school. Mom read it, then tore it up and shocked Dilshaad. “You will not be going to nursing school,” she told her. “You are going to medical school!” Dilshaad could not afford medical school, but Mom said that they would find a way, and medical school it was. Full potential, had been something she had fought for before and after for her brilliant students.
Many students went to medical school and university because Mom and along with her colleagues at Livingstone, found ways to make things happen. Some years back when Mom was diagnosed with cancer, part of her medical team, were some of her former students. They rallied in around their teacher and gave her medical care beyond what any amount of money could buy.
One of the key lessons I learned from my mother was to ask: “What I do, is it right for me?” I watched her become one of the greatest teachers because this was her passion. “What I do, is it right for my family?” We had a humble home and food on our table because of what she did with her time. “What I do, is it right for my community?” Here is where she made her greatest contributions over decades. Eight years ago I added a fourth question when I held Shelby in my arms for the first time after her birth. Shelby is my granddaughter, the child of Darlene’s son. “What I do, is it not just right for ourselves, our family or our community, but is it right for the next generation?” I am the generation my mother not only gave birth to or raised – but taught and she will continue to impact generation after generation.
One of the last times I saw my Mother, we had flown her out to the Caribbean to spend a week on our yacht. Once she had settled down, I heard her call my name. There is a tone that a mother uses and we drop all we are engaged in and respond. She asked, “Rich people fly to Caribbean islands. Rich people own yachts like this. Did you make your money honestly?” For the next several hours mom and I discussed my brand of capitalism. She was not an investor in markets, but a saver of pennies and an investor in knowledge. She has always been about fairness and justice, about looking to what a future can be, not what the past was. She bore the many crosses of poverty, apartheid, an alcoholic husband, but she never faltered in her mission of a better tomorrow for her children, of which my sister and I, are just two, being her flesh and blood.
Jan, I appreciate all you have done for Mom. David and Jesse, I know you will miss her terribly. We all will. We, as her children and her grandchildren, will always remember who she is and what she stood for. We were always her family no matter what. We have an obligation to keep living our lives by the example and expectations she had for us. She will always be our rising star. We are privileged to have been her descendants as she continues to be our guiding light.
To all of us who have been touched by her life, let us raise our heads and be proud of Dr Stella Petersen. By remembering her, let us not forget her expectation of all of us in this world. She lived a full life. Each of us will always have our special memories of her, so I ask you to join me in sharing those memories and celebration of this amazing life. Do not be sad, but be joyous of knowing and honoring the life of my Mother and being a recipient of the many contributions she has made to who we are today.
A Brief History of Dr Stella Petersen
Dr. Stella Petersen Honorary Doctorate from UCT