Written By: Meagan Gunn
If you’ve ever spent a day on the Greenville College campus, you’ve probably seen a woman speeding across the grass driving a camouflage Kubota RTV with two black Scottish terriers at her feet and some flowers bouncing behind her. She is Ella Peters, the campus gardener. Her obvious green thumb can be seen in every season. In the spring, daffodils brave their way through the melting snow and fill the campus with their nodding yellow blooms. And in October, roses add a splash of pink to the autumn reds, oranges, and browns.
Ella was born in Lancaster County, Lancaster, Pennsylvania on September 15, 1935, in a conservative Mennonite home. She is the oldest of six siblings—she has two younger brothers and three younger sisters. Her mother taught them all to enjoy gardening, and all of them are still avid gardeners. When they were growing up, the family canned or froze most of their food. Their garden was so large that it was cultivated with a tractor, which wasn’t unusual for gardens in their area.
Ella completed her nurse’s training at Lancaster General Hospital and married Galen Peters in 1965. They met on an island off the east coast of Newfoundland, where they were both involved in mission work. After 47 years of marriage, Ella says they are still as “happy as two bugs in a rug. I’d do it over again. He’s wonderful.” Later, when Galen was attending graduate school at Iowa State University, Ella worked as a nurse. During the five years of Galen’s assistantship, their family grew as they welcomed all three of their children in three years—two girls and a boy. After Galen graduated from Iowa State in 1971, the family moved to Greenville, where Galen taught mathematics until his retirement. Their son, George Peters, is currently a mathematics professor at Greenville College. Ella worked as a nurse at the Greenville hospital, and later worked as local doctor Boyd McCracken’s nurse for 20 years.
Today Ella is wearing a sweatshirt and a white fisherman’s hat. Despite the rain, she’s busily digging flowers from the mud. Ella says: “I like to work hard and finish the job.” Her “retirement” keeps her busy. She retired from nursing 14 years ago. “I quit at the doctor’s office one day and started gardening here the next day,” she says. “I retired when I was 62 so I could have time for everything else.” Besides keeping the campus beautiful, Ella also grows and helps plant the flowers for over 80 flower pots for the city of Greenville. Her own yard is also bursting with beautiful flowers and foliage. When she’s not gardening, Ella is busy with her baking business—“I like to cook. I like to cook as well as garden…maybe even better.” Anyone who has tasted any of Ella’s cooking will probably encounter this dilemma of whether she is a better gardener or cook; it must be a close tie.
She teaches the third-grade Sunday school class at the Greenville Free Methodist Church, where she tells the children to pray the prayer she prays each morning: “God walk with me today.” Every Sunday night, she hosts a Bible study in her home, and each Thursday evening for the last 25 years, she has invited widows and widowers over for one of her delicious home-cooked meals. Ella’s busy retirement is evidence of her life motto: “I try to make a difference in somebody’s life every day, even if it’s just a smile or writing a note.” For many students at Greenville College, and for many people in the Greenville community, Ella’s smile does make a difference. Even her dogs—Lady and Ebby—are friendly and always ready to greet a friend—or a stranger. Greenville College senior Devri Hughan worked with Ella this summer. She shares this story: “One day, while working in a flower bed, I told her my favorite flowers. She showed up the next day with a pot of each kind, in full bloom. It was the most wonderful gift I’d gotten in a long time.” Devri believes that Ella does make a difference in people’s lives. “She takes every opportunity to talk to people that pass by and to share the gospel with them. She always comes back to where we’re watering with a beaming smile. Sometimes it ends up taking twice as long to finish the day’s job, but for Ella, I don’t think the watering was ever the point.” Ella says, “I talk to students. Sometimes when they’re walking by, I pray for them.” She even gives rides in her Kubota, which are especially nice when it’s raining.
Ella is a strong, compassionate woman, but she’s quick to point out that she doesn’t do any of this on her own—“It’s a God thing. That’s what God does.” Ella definitely makes a difference in this community. If you ever have a question about gardening, need someone to listen to you, or just need a hug, look for the camouflage Kubota and you’ll find Ella.