N. (Newton) Curtis Peterson was born in Lakeland on August 23, 1922. He attended the public schools of the city and graduated from Lakeland High School in 1940. After high school he attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
It was while in Washington that Peterson first became interested in politics. He served as a Congressional intern for his uncle, Representative J. Hardin Peterson, also of Lakeland. It was an exciting time to be in Washington and to be involved, however peripherally, in the politics of the day. The nation was just beginning to emerge from the depths of the Great Depression, while inexorably being drawn into the war raging in Europe. As his uncle's intern, Peterson had a front row seat to the unfolding crisis.
Once the United States became a direct participant in the war, Peterson left college to enlist in the Coast Guard. He remained in the service for the duration of the war. He met and married his wife, Ethel, while stationed with the Coast Guard in Tampa in 1944.
At war's end, Peterson returned to Lakeland and briefly attended Florida Southern College. He soon left to join the family owned Peterson's Nursery as a landscape architect. He became active in local politics through working for candidates with whom he shared common values and political beliefs. He made his first bid for elective office in 1970 when he ran as a Democrat for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. He lost that election, the first and only election he was to lose in his twenty year political career.
Peterson took the lessons he learned from that campaign and applied them to his run for the Florida Senate in a 1972 special election. He won and began what was to be an eighteen year career in the Florida State Senate. He quickly identified education and the state budget as issues on which he would concentrate. Those issues remained dear to him throughout his career in the Senate. He chaired the Senate Education Committee and served on the Appropriations Committee.
Peterson was elected Senate President in 1982 amid a bitter intra-party dispute among the Democrats. He took the then unprecedented step of enlisting Republican support in his ultimately successful bid to unseat the incumbent Democratic Senate President. Peterson rewarded some of his Republican supporters by naming them as committee chairs, also unprecedented in the annals of the Florida Legislature.
Despite this rocky start to his tenure, Peterson's two year term as Senate President was productive. The Florida Legislature passed a number of education reforms during his presidency, including legislation to raise the standards for graduation from Florida high schools. He also managed to direct funds for the construction of a new federal office in building in Lakeland and used his influence in education and finance to locate a combined campus of the University of South Florida and Polk Community College in Lakeland. Both the federal building and a building on the campus are named for Peterson.
Curtis Peterson retired from the Senate in 1990 and returned to Lakeland. He died there on July 19, 1996 at the age of 73. The photo above is a portrait of Peterson which hangs in the state office building in Lakeland bearing his name.