It’s been 85 years, but Frank Petereit can still remember the day his father died like it was yesterday.
The 5-year-old tagged along with his dad one summer to the Missouri River near his house in Plattsmouth, Nebraska. His father wanted to go for a swim, so Frank, who hadn’t learned how yet, sat on the shoreline.
His father waded in and tested the waters further in the river. He was a good swimmer, but Frank saw him start to head downstream.
He disappeared into the water, and then he came back up.
Then he didn’t come back, and Frank was left sitting on the shoreline.
He stayed there for about an hour, and then he went back with two neighborhood girls that had joined them. His father’s body was found later that afternoon. His funeral was a few days later.
Frank would return to that spot again and again.
And he’d cry.
“My mother used to tell me that sometimes people come back from the dead, so I was kind of hoping that would happen,” Frank said. “I was just old enough where I was getting to know him.”
That’s about all he can remember of his father, besides what his mother told him growing up. But it isn’t the only thing his father gave him. He gave him his name: Frank Petereit.
Frank’s life was a struggle from then on, living through poverty in the Great Depression and attending an orphanage for his delinquent tendencies as a boy. His journey would be a series of challenges that would lead to lessons learned and opportunities to grow.
Nothing much was expected from him. But Frank, whose full name was Martin Frank Petereit, proved himself by becoming a doctor — and he did it with the unwavering support of his wife, Iley, and his Christian faith.
A rough childhood, and a path that set him straight
Frank Petereit Sr. fought in World War I. He was German. But he followed his brother to America for the chance at a better future, however brief it may have been.
Frank’s mother had saved up money, but it all became penniless in 1920s Germany. She looked for a way out, and she found escape as a “mail-order bride” to Frank’s father in the United States.
Neither spoke English, but gradually, they made a life for themselves in Nebraska. His father was a farmer. As the Great Depression began, he started working on the Missouri River near Plattsmouth as part of FDR’s WPA program.
His mother worked in a canning factory, though at 88 years old, he can’t remember the details of what she canned.
They lived about 20 miles south of Omaha, Nebraska, on a house up on a hill.
After his father’s death he and his mother were alone in 1930s Great Depression. They moved into the “city house.” It was where the poor people lived.
She was strong and a hard worker. After she returned home from the factory, she’d sew or tend to their chickens. Frank helped contribute to the household income with a paper route and setting pins at the local bowling alley before he was even 12 years old.
But it wasn’t enough to raise a child in such hard times.
“We were very poor. We would walk the railroad tracks, pick up pieces of coal that trains would drop and use them to heat the stove,” Frank said. “The house had no plumbing, no electricity, no furnace, no telephone.”
His mother earned enough to buy their own house eventually, but it was the same story in a different part of town. They slept in the same bed together for many years, since he didn’t have a bedroom of his own. He didn’t know what a vacation was until he was an adult.
By 13, he was getting into plenty of trouble. He and his gang would swipe watermelons from the grocery store, or they’d vandalize their local country club.
Eventually, he was thrown in jail. It was only for a short time though, as he was taken to a delinquency school, Nebraska Children’s Home Society in Omaha.
“I resented being torn away from my mother, but it turned out to be the best break I could have in early life,” Frank said. “My mother did the best she could. But she wasn’t capable of handling what I was becoming.”
After that, foster families took him in.
Many didn’t like him. But one did, and they cared for him. The son in the family, Charles Kofoid, became his closest friend. Later on in life, Charles told Frank that he was the closest thing he’d ever had to a brother.
Planting the seed: 'you should become a doctor'
It was just a game.
Frank was playing Tarzan with friends when he was about 10 years old. A chain on the tree ripped his arm. He bled. His mother rushed to make a tourniquet, since she had been a practical nurse in her former life in Germany. He was rushed 20 miles north to Omaha to the University of Nebraska’s teaching hospital.
Later, she told him how a doctor named J. Jay Keegan saved his arm. She repeated his name for years, and she planted a seed: “Frank, you should be a doctor, too, someday.”
He didn’t become a doctor, though. After graduating from Benson High School, he took several odd jobs. He was a janitor for a while, cleaning bathroom stalls. Then, he became a vacuum salesman, knocking on doors and giving the same pitch day in and day out.
His arm injury limited him. He couldn’t join the army despite participating in ROTC in school because of his injury and a heart murmur. He couldn’t strum a guitar properly, and his fingers just didn’t move like a normal ever again.
He was teased for his disability, but he vowed he wouldn’t let it stop him from his dreams. He just had to work a little harder.
He was sent to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for the vacuum salesman job, where he’d later meet the love of his life and follow the path that set him out to be what his mother had always dreamed for him: a doctor.
The brunette in the gold blouse
Frank saw her in a booth at the Arkota Ballroom.
She was a gorgeous brunette in a gold blouse. He couldn’t look away, and he asked her to dance.
Her name was Iley. She was her class salutatorian and was studying to be a nurse. She was smarter than him, and he knew it.
He asked her out to a church meeting the next night and they got serious fast. He was scared of commitment, so he tried moving to Sioux City. But he couldn’t stay away and was driving an hour up on the weekends to see her. That’s when he knew he was in for the long haul.
“For a while I wanted her to quit nursing school to get married. But that would have been really stupid,” Frank said. “She was smarter than I was. She became a very good nurse and actually worked with a surgeon in Omaha that was a pioneer in organ transplants.”
The two married on Aug. 22, 1952.
He continued selling vacuums. But he quickly realized he had to do better. He had to do better for himself, for Iley, and for their first child, Linda.
Two weeks after Iley graduated, Frank started school at Augustana College in Sioux Falls.
From the back of the classroom to Frank Petereit, MD.
Frank was never good at school.
He spoke German at home, and when he first went to Kindergarten, he had no idea how to speak English.
“I walked in there and here were these kids all jabbering on the playground in English, and I didn’t understand a word of it,” Frank said. “I remember going to school, going to the back of the room and sticking my feet out of an open window. I eventually would pick it up from being there, though.”
That’s how schooling was for him. He did poorly the rest of grade school. It wasn’t until he applied for an undergraduate program at Augustana College in Sioux Falls that he was determined to do well.
The admissions counselor asked him if he wanted to study something easier after looking at his high school records. Maybe sociology. And maybe not a full course load, either. Maybe cut it in half.
“Nope. I’m not going for that,” Frank remembers thinking.
He took pre-med. He wanted to graduate in three years. He took harder courses, and he got straight A’s. He transferred after his freshman year to Omaha University, now University of Nebraska at Omaha.
He became an entirely different person, he remembers. He was dedicated, determined and driven to prove himself. He sold vacuum cleaners part time, and Iley worked full-time as a nurse to pay for schooling.
“I was highly, highly motivated,” Frank said. “My wife had a lot to do with it. My mother played a part in it. I wanted to succeed. When I was accepted to medical school, I actually sat down and cried because I was so happy.”
Starting a family together
Frank bounced around the Midwest and the western United States as he found which specialization he wanted to be as a doctor after graduating medical school.
But one thing that was consistent in all his moves was Iley.
The couple’s second child, Karen, was born while Frank was an intern at Ogden, Utah. Their third, Dan, was delivered by one of Frank’s former classmates in Colorado, they were heading up their own practice.
“I remember we worked all day. I did surgery. Iley was the scrub nurse. My partner was giving the anesthetic,” Frank said. “After a long day, she goes into labor and this poor guy had to stay up with her most of the night while I went to sleep.”
Eventually, Frank landed on radiology and moved back to Sioux Falls. He was the first radiologist in Sioux Falls to ever do an angiogram.
Now, his son has taken up the call as a radiation oncologist, citing his father’s career as an inspiration. Dan also has a daughter who became an optometrist, a son who is attending medical school and another son who is studying pre-medicine at college.
Linda became a nurse, following in her mother’s footsteps, and her two sons went on to become an attorney and a neuroradiologist at Sanford Health.
“I guess Iley and I started something there in the medical world,” Frank said.
Frank has always had some sort of Christian influence in his life.
His father was some sort of Christian, and his mother was a Jehovah’s Witness. It wasn’t until he went to the orphanage that he was introduced to Presbyterian faith.
As he grew older, he always found comfort in Christianity. He attended church and he went to youth groups into his young adulthood.
In fact, that’s how he met Iley that night at the ballroom. He was searching for friends from his local church’s youth group, and that’s when he saw her sitting with them in the booth.
“All the accolades you could get through life - or honors or whatever you become professionally - all of it is meaningless when it comes to faith,” Frank said.
He was Presbyterian until he joined the Lutheran Church after meeting Iley. At 90 years old, he’s grateful to delve into his faith more. He joined the Bible Study Fellowship after he retired, an intensive program that he stayed in for seven years.
Christianity has played a significant role in his life, and he credits his good life, family and success to his faith.
“I’m very glad that God is letting me live this long,” Frank said, “so I could learn more about him and make the right choices for the hereafter.”