Sue Peterson was 18 years old and a freshman at Los Angeles Valley College when she was picked for the cover of SI's second swimsuit issue. The daughter of a housewife and of a fireman, and herself a Sunday school teacher, Peterson viewed modeling as a lark, an easy way to make a little money and see a bit of the world. She had the sunstruck good looks associated in those days with beaches, surfboards and Gidget movies, and that image made her just what swimsuit editor Jule Campbell was looking for. "I always used California girls in the early days," says Campbell. "They were bigger, healthier and more natural."
The locale that year was Mexico's Baja California. Peterson had never traveled before, even to Mexico, and when Campbell assembled her expedition at the Los Angeles airport for the flight to Cabo San Lucas, Sue's mother's parting words to Campbell were, "Take care of my baby."
Another member of the SI swimsuit team that year was Jack Olsen, a 39-year-old, twice-married writer, who had been assigned to do the travel story that would accompany the swimsuit pictures. Olsen was a man of the world, known for his needle-sharp wit and his prodigious writing talent, but considering his age and his six children, some of them about the same age as Peterson, he hardly seemed the answer to a schoolgirl's prayer.
Nonetheless, romance bloomed in the Mexican sun, and two years later Peterson and Olsen were married. Olsen's pals back in New York City said the marriage would last six months.
Today Sue and Jack Olsen live with their two children, a girl, 12, and boy, 7, amid the cedar forests of Bainbridge Island, which is 30 minutes by ferry across Puget Sound from Seattle. Jack writes nonfiction books, and Sue manages all other aspects of their lives. She is a dedicated parent, a passionate gardener and an all-around accomplished householder whose fervor for her life's work has never waned. Sue's vocation is also her avocation. Her bookshelves are lined with treatises on child rearing and nutrition. When her kids showed symptoms of a predisposition to the allergies that had plagued Jack's youth, she studied the subject thoroughly and tried a number of remedies, including putting the children on a rigid dietary rotation that enabled their bodies to become desensitized naturally. "She is totally committed to being a good wife and a great mother," says Jack.
Nothing Sue does is by halves. When, to her surprise, an arrangement of dried flowers she had contributed to an auction at her children's school sold for $150, she turned her talent into a profitable hobby that earns her as much as $300 an order. "I work in a space I share with 400 pounds of dried flowers," says Jack.
Her Swedish-style Christmases, which sometimes require three months of preparation, are family rituals. Sue travels to Ballard, Seattle's Scandinavian district, to buy the best potatiskorv (sausage) and lutefisk (pickled cod). Every year she bakes Swedish cookies to distribute among her Bainbridge Island neighbors, although sweets are forbidden in her own house.
During their first 10 years together, before their daughter was born, Sue was Jack's literary aide-de-camp. She was his researcher, travel agent, manager and full-time companion. Now, when Jack is away researching a book, Sue stays at home, but they still find time to hike, fish, hunt wild mushrooms and, now and then, hide out in a cabin in the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound, where, Jack says, they do absolutely nothing.
"Sue is not an adjunct," he says. "If there is an adjunct around here, it's me. She's the imperial potentate of this family, but in a benevolent way. If she had gone into business, she would be the president of a corporation by now. Instead she has put all of that energy into making sure that we have the right soil for making the coriander come up better."
Sue would just as soon forget she was ever on SI's cover. For one thing, she didn't like the photograph of herself on the cover. She keeps no copies of her swimsuit issue as trophies, and she forbids the mention of it outside the family. In 1987 she told USA Today, "It was just not one of the big things in my life. I suppose it was a bit of a kick, but it's so long ago I've just put it out of my head."
Sue chose not to be interviewed or photographed for this year's 25th anniversary swimsuit issue (the photo above was taken for USA Today), but she allowed Jack to speak for her. "It's just not her thing," he says.
Sue's modeling career lasted a little more than a year. After the swimsuit issue she did commercials in New York. Offers to appear in movies followed, but Sue had other things in mind. While she was working in Manhattan, she lived for five months with Campbell and her husband, Ron, and their young son. "She would make things like tablecloths and lingonberry jam for friends," says Campbell. "We took her to the country with us on weekends, and she fell in love with our farm and planted an herb garden. In the country everybody loved her. She was a ray of sunshine, a very up person. She was pretty and probably had potential—she was quite natural in front of the camera—but she never wanted to be a model. She wanted to be a housewife."
According to Jack, Sue has changed very little physically in the 24 years since she appeared on SI's cover. "She probably weighs four pounds more than she did then," he says. "She takes care of herself."
Jack's only complaint is that Sue's everyday uniform, blue jeans and baggy sweaters, disguises the fact too well. "She still has the same gorgeous figure she did then," he says. "But nobody on Bainbridge Island even knows she has a waist."