Linda Peterson, 74, could have retired comfortably years ago from her job with the BNSF Railway. But she said it’s her work that keeps her body moving and her mind right.
“You can’t just stare at four walls all day,” she said.
So Peterson drives to Clarendon Hills from her home in Arlington Heights each morning and opens the station around 5:15 a.m.—15 minutes earlier than she’s expected to—and drives home each afternoon after closing at around 1:30 p.m.
She's been making the drive to work for this same railway for 55 years.
Peterson has worked four completely different jobs for the railroad, seeing it turn from the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad into the Burlington Northern and then into the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. She’ll reach the 55-year milestone on Oct. 23.
“It’s a lifetime,” Peterson said with certainty last week in between afternoon trains.
Linda’s husband Tom died of pneumonia at the age of 55 more than 20 years ago. And while Peterson, who has clerked at the Clarendon Hills train station since 1996, said over and over how much she enjoys her job and the town she serves, she admits she might not still be selling tickets and making chit-chat with the Clarendon Hills' Chicago commuters if she hadn’t lost Tom at such a young age.
“If my husband was living, I probably wouldn’t have stayed here that long,” Peterson said. “We planned to do stuff, and just like that, he was gone.”
Peterson was born in Shullsburg, WI, which is 25 miles from Dubuque, IA, and right on the Wisconsin-Illinois border. She was raised on her dad’s farm before she graduated from high school and headed to Minneapolis for four months of post-secondary business school.
Still 18 years old, Peterson came to Chicago with a friend in the fall of 1957 and got a short-lived job with Delta Airlines. After learning she could get half-price train tickets to visit her parents if she worked for the railroad, she applied at the Chicago Burlington and Quincy and she was offered a job in the claims department.
“I called Delta and I told them I wasn’t coming in,” Peterson said with a laugh. “I’ve been here ever since.”
Later that year, Linda met Tom, a commercial electrician, and the two married a few years later in 1961. The two never had any kids, so Peterson’s only living family members are a sister who lives in Rockford, a nephew in DeKalb and an aunt back in Wisconsin.
With more than 15 years of service in Clarendon Hills under her belt, Peterson has become a part of the community.
“I love my job,” Peterson said. “The people here are so wonderful to me. I can’t tell you enough about how wonderful they are.”
She said recently a young man approached her at her window and asked Peterson if she remembered him. She told him she did.
“He said, ‘I was only 11 years old when I met you,’ and now he’s going downtown to go to art school,” Peterson said. “I said, ‘You’re making me feel old.’”
Friend and former coworker Sue Walker, who retired last month after 40 years with BNSF, said Peterson is a dedicated employee who’s always able to keep a positive outlook on life by seeing the bright side of everything.
“Everybody loves her,” Walker said. “She’s just a smiling face.”
Rose Lindsey, who Peterson said was a great boss to her as the suburban services manager for about 10 years, called Peterson “a people person” who truly cares about her customers. Asked when she thinks Peterson will hang it up, Lindsey recalled putting that same question to her employee back in the 1980s.
“Linda told me, ‘I’m never going to retire. You never have to ask me again because I’m never going to retire,’” Lindsey said.
It seems Peterson has changed her tone a bit since then. She said she’s not banking on a 60th anniversary.
“I take each day as it comes,” Peterson said.
Then she said it again.
“I love my job. I love my people here in Clarendon Hills.”