People knew they were comfortable. Merle and Deloris Peterson of Dumas had been important people in southeast Arkansas.
Merle, who died in 2004, had been a founding director of a bank who served as a state senator in the 1960s. He also was a well-known Democratic Party bigwig with close ties to Bill Clinton, the Arkansas governor who went on to become president.
His wife, Deloris, helped run the Ford dealership they owned together. Until she died earlier this year, she was a church and community leader, whose obituary mentions her naming as Dumas’ “Citizen of the Year” in 1979 (as well as its “Ding Dong Mama,” an honor at the city’s annual festival, in 1988).
But despite their prominence in their hometown of fewer than 5,000, they lived a simple life in a modest house near the funeral home.
“If you ever ran into them, Mr. Merle wasn’t dressed to the nines and neither was Miss Deloris,” said Terry Wood, who grew up in Dumas and knew the Petersons all her life. “You wouldn’t think they had two nickels to rub together.”
It turns out they had some nickels. A lot of them, in fact.
This week, sizable gifts from the Petersons’ multimillion-dollar estate have startled and delighted the city of Dumas and the University of Arkansas at Monticello, which held a news conference Friday to announce the largest gift ever received by the university.
After specific bequests are distributed, UAM will receive 20 percent of the remainder of a trust established by the Petersons, which the university expects to be in the neighborhood of $6 million.
“I have pinched myself, because it seems almost too good to be true,” Chancellor Karla Hughes said.
In a coincidence, the call about the bequest came in to Jeff Weaver, UAM’s vice chancellor for advancement, who grew up in Dumas. He was well-acquainted with the Petersons and had received a scholarship endowed by them when he was a student at the university.
“[The call] left me speechless for a while. I had to kind of pause and [say], ‘Wow,’” Weaver said.
Weaver remembers the Petersons as a “low-key but powerful couple” in his hometown. He said they had helped him throughout his career and were part of “anything that was positive in moving Dumas forward.”
But “you would never think that, or know that, they had accumulated that kind of wealth in their life,” he said.
For the university, the donation moves its plans at least five years forward, Hughes said. She said the next-largest gift, of around $1 million, was received some time ago.
Deloris and Merle Peterson (right) pose with then-U.S. Rep. Marion Berry in June 2003. The “low-key but powerful” couple’s estate has surprised their hometown of Dumas and the University of Arkansas at Monticello with sizable bequests.
More importantly, donations of this magnitude can change the overall fundraising outlook for the open-admissions school. She said groups that study fundraising and development have shown that sizable donations attract the attention of other donors, who “realize how much [large donations] can mean to an institution.”
“I really wish I had been able to know [the Petersons],” she said. “I think it’s an amazing story of people who were humble, worked hard, acquired wealth and then gave it away.”
The university has not yet decided what it will do with the money, but Hughes said there are many possibilities, including a new science and math building, investments in the school’s nursing program or enhancements to classroom space.
“It will give us the luxury of implementing [plans] without delay. … It’s not something we’ve been used to,” Hughes said.
Mayor Johnny Brigham also called a meeting Tuesday to announce his own good news to residents. Dumas also will receive 20 percent of the remainder of the Petersons’ trust, while a hospital there will receive 10 percent.
It’s a final gift from the couple, who Brigham described as involved in almost every aspect of local life, to the small agricultural community.
“Everyone knew Mr. Merle. It was ‘Mr. Merle,’ that was him. It was kind of like going to see your daddy,” he said, adding that the couple was always willing to “step up and help” with projects.
The gift is also the largest donation ever received by the city.
“We’ll probably never get one like this again. … There’s things all over town you could use it for,” he said.
“We were figuring something might be left [to the city], but we didn’t think it’d be of that magnitude,” said Judy Day, executive director of the Dumas Chamber of Commerce. “You can start thinking of all the things you can improve with it.”
The City Council and budget committee will take requests and decide what to do with the money, Brigham said, but he said it could provide local matching funds for Delta-area grants the city applies for.
“[Merle] was always good-hearted to help the city in every way. … We’re trying to use their money wisely,” he said.
Wood, who is a senior vice president at Simmons Bank in Dumas and described Merle as a mentor, credited the couple’s frugal lifestyle and business acumen for their fortune.
She said the pair were totally self-made, characterizing Merle as a “wheeler-dealer” who “was just contagious with his let’s-do attitude.”
Deloris, she said, was the quiet, quick-witted force behind him, who worked while Merle served during World War II to make their car dealership a success and was often the financial brains behind Merle’s plans.
“She kept her little foot on his shirttail all the time, to slow him down long enough so that she could make everything work out with the money,” Wood said.
Another one of Deloris’ friends, Dr. David Chambers of Delta Health Services, said Deloris was still going into the office well into her 90s while working “incessantly” in civic life.
He also never saw her spend money on herself, though he knew they were well-off. Once, Chambers said, Deloris sent home a health aide who was supposed to be looking after her, saying “I’m not paying someone to sit there and watch me sleep.”
Wood said hard work and savings allowed the Petersons to travel internationally and support local organizations through their philanthropy. Though they didn’t have their own children, Wood said they put many Dumas students through college, often at UAM.
“They took nothing from the community,” she said. “All they did was give, worked hard, and gave.”
That tradition of giving will continue with the announcement of more bequests from the trust. Cathy Brazeale, Simmons Bank manager of personal trust in Pine Bluff, said the recipients of the rest of the money have not been announced publicly but letters went out Friday notifying the next round of beneficiaries.
Given the size of the Petersons’ fortune, it’s bound to be a good day — and a big surprise — for those recipients.
“In a small town, you hear everything, but I had no idea what [the Petersons’] finances was,” said Day, the chamber of commerce executive director. “Never even thought about it, to tell you the truth.”