MILWAUKEE — Deacon Jim and Donna Peterson agree that heightened nuclear family closeness and a keen sense of extended family were even more valuable than the fun times circus participation afforded them through the years.

Chris Peterson, the second eldest son of Deacon Jim Peterson and his wife Donna, drives a Caterpillar tractor to unload a circus train car in an undated photo. Donna and Deacon Jim Peterson, a deacon at St. Sebastian Parish, Milwaukee, pictured in an undated photo, credit their volunteer experience with the circus parade as one reason their family has remained so close. (Submitted photos courtesy the Peterson family)

Chris Peterson, the second eldest son of Deacon Jim Peterson and his wife Donna, drives a Caterpillar tractor to unload a circus train car in an undated photo. (Submitted photos courtesy the Peterson family)

“It worked for us,” commented Jim during an interview with the Catholic Herald at his home in Milwaukee’s Washington Heights neighborhood. “I guess the main thing is (that through Great Circus Parade and Circus World Museum volunteerism) we had enforced time together as a family. The kids would’ve been off to all corners of the city (otherwise). That kept us together. The kids all found their niche because of it.”

Daughter Robin Hensersky, who lived the dream of many a young girl as she helped groom and ride horses, went on to work in the poultry and rabbit barn at the Wisconsin State Fair (where she met her husband, Jim), eventually assuming her current position as the fair’s agricultural manager.

Son Chris, whose youthful volunteer activities included welding, now welds professionally; son Randy became an elephant handler and works for Ringling in Florida. Both Chris and Randy met wives-to-be during Peterson volunteering jaunts.

Regarding the circus professionals and volunteers she came to know, Donna said “the sense of community is priceless.” She likened the volunteer experience to “a great family reunion (wherein) we learned a lot and had a lot of fun,” doing things like taking a practice ride on a wagon pulled by a 40-horse hitch. She added that “as a rule, circus people are family people.”[su_pullquote align=”left”]Click here for related story.[/su_pullquote]

“They’re true blue,” Deacon Peterson reiterated. “Good people (to whom) I’d give my car keys if they needed a car.”

Donna, who is employed by Catholic Financial Life, sings in the St. Sebastian choir along with daughter Robin, who lives nearby. Deacon Peterson, too, is musical. Recently, in retirement, he’s taken up the harp. In addition to the saxophone, he’s long played guitar and the bagpipes.

He formed a band with buddies in high school; the band performed often at the CYO dances popular with adolescents of the archdiocese in the 1960s. Later, in the wake of Vatican II, he played at guitar Masses.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Deacon Peterson – a particularly striking presence with a beard and a full head of thick, silvery hair – made music an integral part of a commemorative service at St. Sebastian. As presider, he augmented the readings and prayers he led by playing “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes.

Deacon Peterson, who recalled serving the deacon’s liturgical role when Sunday Mass was celebrated on the Great Circus Parade grounds, said the idea of the diaconate hit him quite suddenly one day about three decades ago.

“You get the calling,” he said. “I can’t explain it, (but) anybody who’s had it would know what I mean.”