Some people see the beauty in the world and want to share it with others. Lily Peter spent a lifetime teaching, writing and giving to the people of Arkansas to nurture this love of life and the arts. The acclaimed poet and philanthropist left a deep legacy through the written word, music and the education of countless students that left the world a richer place because of her work.
Lily Peter was born in June 1891 on her parents’ farm near the small town of Marvell in Phillips County. She was the eldest of 10 children. Her childhood was one met with great tragedy. Five of her brothers and sisters died while still children. A horrible accident took the life of her father when she was 16.
She attended high school in the nearby community of Ohio, a community that has since disappeared. A gifted student, she graduated at the top of her class of Ohio High School. Though she wished for higher education, the needs of her family kept her close to home. She began working as a teacher in some of the small schools dotting the countryside of Phillips County to help support her ailing mother and surviving siblings.
Her eldest brother ran the farm with her help and with her salary from teaching and the farm’s proceeds, she was able to send her other siblings to college. Within a few years, noting her sacrifices for them, they were able to return the favor and paid for her college education at Columbia University in New York, where she received a bachelor’s degree in English. She received a master’s degree at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Music had long been a passion for her, and she was able to study violin at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York.
After her graduation, she returned to Arkansas to teach. The family farm prospered and expanded. The family eventually bought a second farm and expanded their property size to more than 7,000 acres. She would later build a cotton gin on the farm as well.
In 1918, in the midst of World War I, she wrote a song in support of American troops fighting in Europe. The patriotic march “A-M-E-R-I-C-A” was put to music by Leo Friedman. In 1964, her first collection of poems was published, “The Green Linen of Summer.”
She also became famous for giving. At Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, she restored the old chapel on the college’s campus. The chapel was later renamed Peter Hall in her honor. To further honor her writing, philanthropy and her support of music, she was given an honorary doctorate by the college in 1965. She never married and often said of the many students to whom she gave scholarships that it was not her privilege to have children but that those were her children. In 1969, determined to bring more culture to Arkansas, she took out a loan of $60,000 to bring the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra to Little Rock to perform.
In October 1971, Gov. Dale Bumpers named Peter, now aged 80, as the state’s fourth poet laureate. The Arkansas Poet Laureate position was an honorary title created by the state Legislature in 1923. Peter would hold the honor for the next 20 years.
Now in her ninth decade, her passion for the arts and writing did not slow down. Peter continued to write and to support the arts and education. She helped establish the Lily Peter Auditorium at Phillips County Community College in Helena in 1972.
In 1973, she published her next collection of poetry, “The Sea Dream of the Mississippi.” She also expanded her interests into environmental causes as more attention began to be drawn to the topic in the 1970s. She began experimenting with organic farming, agriculture without pesticides. Organic farming would not start catching attention in the popular mind until the 1990s. She also began to speak out on a variety of environmental topics.
She enjoyed a warm correspondence with teachers and authors. These letters were later collected and donated to Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. In 1982, Arkansas author Lyman B. Hagen wrote a brief biography simply called Lily Peter as part of the state’s Arkansas Authors project.
Two of her most notable works, “The Great Riding: The Story of De Soto in America” and “In the Beginning: Myths of the Western World,” were both republished in 1983. These epic poems of adventure, exploration and imagination were well-received by readers and critics alike.
Always active, she never let up in her pursuit of the arts and literature. In July 1991, Peter died quietly at her home near Marvell, just a month past her 100th birthday. The beauty of her words and her spirit would live on.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].