Les Peterson of Peterson Mechanical dies at 73

Les Manning Peterson, a native Sonoman and third-generation owner, president and CEO of Peterson Mechanical, a 106-year-old Sonoma HVAC company, died unexpectedly from a heart attack July 11 while vacationing with his family at Donner Lake, California. He was 73 years old.

Les was remembered this week as a fun-loving husband and father, for his legacy in the HVAC industry, and as a tireless friend to the community.

As Gary Nelson, who had known Les Peterson since 1989, put it: Les was “a wonderful human and great friend.”

Les started in the family business as a sheet metal worker, eventually moving into management as a project manager, working closely with his father Richard Peterson. The company grew and took on cutting-edge projects in the Bay Area, including early development of geothermal energy at the geysers in northern Sonoma County.

Locally, the Petersons were known for their generous contributions to the planning and building of Vintage House.

In 1994, Les moved the company from its headquarters on First Street East to its brand new and larger offices on Eighth Street East. Eventually he was joined there by his son, Scott, and nephew Zach Brander.

“I always thought he had huge shoes to fill in the community and industry,” Scott told the Index-Tribune this week. Now, with his father’s passing, there are “still big shoes to fill.”

Even as his company grew, Les always found time to work on community projects like raising money for the new Sonoma Valley Boys & Girls Club, and the planning and developing the Sonoma Valley Field of Dreams. In fact, it was Les who ensured that the large complex of athletic fields had the water and irrigation system that has kept them safe and green for succeeding generations of young athletes. He and Peterson Mechanical donated countless hours to designing and completing the Field of Dreams and overseeing its maintenance. In honor of his contribution to the project the main ball field is named “Peterson Field.”

In recognition of the Peterson family’s longtime support and contributions to the Boys & Girls Club, the nonprofit named Les and wife Peggy its 2015 “Sweethearts” at its annual Sweethearts Gala fundraising event.

Cary Snowden, executive director of the club, stressed how the entire Peterson family is “always there for us,” including donations of air conditioning equipment and maintenance services to the club’s facilities.

“Les has left a lasting impact on our organization and this community,” said Snowden. “His legacy is one of generosity, humility and kindness.”

Daughter Karly Miller said that she’s always sensed her dad’s commitment to community causes earned him a fair amount of respect in Sonoma. “You could say his name to anyone they would have a story about him,” she said.

Peterson was born at Sonoma Valley Hospital on June 15, 1949, attended Prestwood Elementary School, Sonoma Valley High School and then earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Nevada, Reno.

He met Peggy in 1971 — on a chairlift, while skiing at Alpine Meadows. They both shouted “single!” as the two-person lifts rotated through, indicating solo skiers available to share a lift with another.

“He was like, ‘It was nice riding up with you,’” Peggy recalls of the tall, handsome skier who had captured her attention. “But he stupidly didn’t ask for my phone number!”

So Peggy donned the same outfit, same skis and frequented the same lift the next day in hopes of a second encounter. “And there he was,” she said.

“We had a hell of a lot of fun together,” Peggy said of that ski day, and the 50 years that followed.

Les and Peggy married in 1974 shortly after her graduation from UC Davis. They settled in Sonoma, starting their life together in a small home across from the Little League Field on First Street East two doors north of the Peterson Mechanical office.

He also loved his job, and growing Peterson Mechanical into the large and successful business it is today. He believed in its operation as a business whose employees were thought of as family.

He wanted work to be more than about work, said Sean O’Donoghue, executive vice president of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association, a trades group for which Les had been a longtime board member. “(To Les) it’s about children and spouses and being together,” O’Donoghue said, adding that since Les’s death he’s fielded numerous calls from bereft associates and contractors. “He touched a lot of people.”

Les was also passionate about developing career opportunities in the building trades and led the creation of a metal working program for high school students. The Heavy Metal program is finishing up its first summer at Peterson Mechanical, with 13 students learning the art of metal work as a potential career path.

He enjoyed hunting and fishing, spending time with family at Little Grass Valley and Donner Lake, swimming, hiking, and backpacking and skiing. He and close friend Victor Zarzana enjoyed fishing and hunting together, and couples-camper-van trips with their spouses. Zarzana recalled multiple occasions when Les was there to help him out of a jam – whether it was an emergency repair job, or the time the Petersons lent over their Donner house to him and his wife when they’d become stranded by highway closures. “With Les, it was always ‘yes,’” said Zarzana.

Most of all Les enjoyed spending time with his family and loved spending time with his grandkids who called him “Big Pop.” He spent much time taking them to sports practices and games, with regular stops at Scandia and other places for treats. There were also many trips to Friedman’s Home Improvement to help them with endless projects from tree houses, bird houses, to candy shoots and pretty much anything they could dream up.

He was a kind and caring father was always there for them with a smile and a kind word, and known to his friends as the one they could always count on if they needed help, advice and an extra hand with a home improvement project, said family members.

He is survived by his wife, Peggy, daughter, Karly Miller, son-in-law, Scott Miller, son Scott Peterson and daughter-in-law Kimmy Peterson, sister Nedra Peterson, brother Kris Peterson, nephew Zach Brander and his wife Marcy, and sister-in-law Lynn Mori and her husband, Bruce and nephew Kellan Mori and five grandchildren: Mary Miller, 13, Ellie Miller, 11, Juliette Peterson, 7, Eli Peterson, 5, and Ethan Peterson, 4 months.

A private memorial service and celebration of his life for friends and family will be announced at a later date.

Email Jason Walsh at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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