Palm Desert resident John Peters, 66, came from a confused family background—which, in anyone else, might have led to dysfunction, insecurity and/or any number of psychologically traumatic results. But this ebullient man has not only prevailed—he has triumphed.
Peters was born the youngest of four children in Intercourse, Penn. (Yes, that’s really the name.) His father died 6 months before he was born—and his mother remarried and moved, leaving behind the four kids. His two brothers were sent to an orphanage school; his sister was placed in a similar school.
“There were no social programs back then for a young mother like there are today,” Peters says gently.
Peters was too young for a placement and was adopted and raised by his great-aunt and great-uncle in an Amish community.
“The (Amish) kids were all the same (as ‘normal’ kids), just wearing different clothes,” he says. “Intercourse had a population of about 800. You couldn’t get away with anything!”
Peters’ awareness of how different his family situation was began to develop when he was around 6 years old. “I remember distinctly that a bunch of us were out playing, and this girl called me ‘adopted baby.’ I ran to tell my ‘mom,’ and she told me she wasn’t my mom, but that my ‘Aunt Ruth’ was really my mother.
“I didn’t trust anybody after that.”
Peters found out who his natural father was through a half-sister, born during his father’s previous marriage. (He didn’t connect with her until he was 48 years old. He has also reconnected with his natural sister; they became friends as adults.)
Peters’ interest in education developed when he almost flunked out of high school. “I was put in special-education classes,” he says. “My adoptive parents never went very far in school and thought high school was the top of the line. I loved history and business, but I had never learned how to study. As a senior, I think I was taking about 12 periods of shop!”
He found an outlet in martial arts. “My adopted mom had such limited exposure; she didn’t even want me to do sports,” he recalls. He learned jujitsu from a Sunday-school teacher who had military and police-work experience. Peters went on to learn Kodokan, a specific form of judo in which the competition to take down an opponent is key.
Peters left Intercourse in 1969 to move to Washington, D.C., and went to work with the FBI as a clerical employee. He completed his undergraduate degree while at the FBI, and would then go on to earn a doctorate in applied management and decision sciences, a master’s in career and technical education, an MBA in marketing and management, a master’s in public relations, a bachelor’s in criminal justice, and certificates including a teaching credential with the state of California.
Peters’ final assignment with the FBI was at the training academy at Quantico. “I left because it just wasn’t what I thought it would be,” he says.
The constant moving was also an issue, as Peters was raising his two sons as a single parent. “Mothers didn’t know what to do with me when I showed up at school functions,” he laughs.
He left the FBI to do on-the-ground police work, later becoming an expert witness and trainer for police departments across the country regarding police and correctional-institution policies. He is currently president and chief learning officer of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths, Inc. and has been the senior trainer and president of Defensive Tactics Institute, Inc. He also has his own consulting company. Finally, he has produced eight books and 35 videos.
Not bad for a kid raised by people who didn’t believe in education.
Although Peters traveled most of his professional life, he settled full-time in Palm Desert last year.
“I came here on business in 1984,” he says, “to edit a film about defensive tactics with flashlights for police training. I was so impressed with this area. It’s the most beautiful place.”
He bought a condo and commuted between here and Las Vegas, and then held on to it until the market rebounded. Today, he lives with his fiancée, Marilyn, in the house they purchased last year.
They met in a Cal State class. “After we met in class, I remembered her. She stood out in the crowd,” Peters says. “The day we took our exams, we talked. Then I got an email from her months later. We met for coffee. She suggested we walk together, one of my favorite activities, and I assumed she lived near me, since she wanted to start at 6:30 a.m. I was floored when I realized she had driven over all the way from La Quinta. The rest is history.”
As if he didn’t have enough going on, Peters is the president of the Palm Springs Writers Guildand loves encouraging others to pursue their dreams.
Given the headlines about the difficulties faced by law enforcement, what does Peters think we should know?
“I look at my work with police through a lens of honesty,” he says. “When ‘rogue officers’ get in trouble, whether by use of excess force or sexual misconduct, too often they are kept on the job. Some people make mistakes and need to be held accountable.
“Although cab drivers, firefighters and other professions have higher rates of death, police face ‘excited delirium’ behaviors that can be the result of a variety of causes, from dementia to drugs to mental illness. Yes, police need to police their own, but never forget that cops are targets by virtue of their uniform. With the police, the uniform itself means that their deaths are not industrial accidents—they’re murders.”
What’s next for Peters? “Writing topics I want to write; getting involved in community organizations; and part-time teaching.”
One of Peters’ most enjoyable projects was researching how Intercourse got its name. It’s a story I’ll leave for him to tell.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.