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10 Years of Red Fern

County’s capstone festival kicked off Friday with visit from star of original movie

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Stewart Petersen played Billy Coleman

Stewart Petersen played Billy Coleman in the 1974 release of “Where the Red Fern Grows,” and made a guest appearance at this year’s Red Fern Festival.

“Where the Red Fern Grows” has made an impact on countless people throughout the years, and the boy who tugged at their heartstrings paid the town a visit for this year’s festival.

It’s the 10th anniversary of the Red Fern Festival, and Stewart Petersen, who portrayed Billy Coleman in the 1974 production of “Where the Red Fern Grows,” helped celebrate a piece of literature that was integral in shaping Tahlequah’s identity. Petersen currently lives where he was born and raised, in Cokeville, Wyo. – a town of about 500 people close to the Idaho and Utah borders.

Petersen said he landed the role of Billy Coleman after his uncle obtained the rights to make the film. He said during the search for an actor to fill the role, his uncle thought he should give it a try. Petersen hadn’t read the book at that point and didn’t actually think he’d get the part.

“I did the tryouts kind of out of curiosity, so when I ended up with part, it was kind of like, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done here now,’” Petersen said. “It was given to me, and I believe that a lot of things in our life happen for a reason, that there’s a divine hand in directing our paths if we’re listening. And I try to listen, so that’s kind of where I ended up.”

Petersen has seven movie credits on the Internet Movie Database, but said the life of an actor just didn’t suit him. He acted from age 13 until around the time he graduated from high school, but said some of the values and morals embedded within the film industry didn’t match up to his own, so he got out.

“I really didn’t know what I was going to do after that,” Petersen said. “I had a lot of interest in wood shop when I was high school, so I started doing a little bit of remodeling. Pretty soon, that evolved into full-time building, so I’ve been involved in building and remodeling homes for over 20 years now.”

Petersen said coming from a small town, getting involved in film was quite a culture shock. Petersen came from a family of six, and said both his father and mother were extremely busy tending to the ranch and the children. He said the filming took two months, and during that time, he was pretty much left to his own.

“I realized that life is full of decisions, and decisions are what really affect our lives long-term,” Petersen said. “I made some important decisions when I first came up here that affected who I am today - it affected how I saw life. The value system that I observed and that I’d heard about in the movie business, it did not mesh with what I had been taught and what I felt. All of us have a responsibility to be good and do good, and I believe it’s important to recognize that sometimes we’re placed in a position to have a positive influence on people’s lives, whether we like it or not.”

Petersen said that unlike his hometown, Tahlequah has grown considerably since he was first here in 1973. He said that although he may have traveled far from home for the filming, he didn’t feel too out of place when he was here.

“I was coming from the country, but going to the country as well,” Petersen said. “So I felt, in many ways, like I was home. The people were so much like what I was used to. I do remember buying a bike when I got down here to get around. Being 13, I couldn’t drive around, so with my per diem money I bought me my first 10-speed.”

“Where the Red Fern Grows” and the Red Fern Festival have become ingrained in the culture of Tahlequah, and Petersen said when you have a community that can identify with something positive, there’s an underlying foundation that gives the community strength.

“It develops pride, it develops the community itself when there is a social structure in place,” Petersen said. “I’ve observed communities that have lost their identity and it becomes a melting pot and nobody really cares. Around here, you can see that people care, and to me, that’s one of the most valuable lessons that any of us can learn – that our name and who we are really matters.”

He believes that when you’re associated with something positive in lives of people that they’re proud of, it becomes the glue that holds a community together.

“So that’s kind of what I see as I watch these people, and that’s why these kinds of events are important, because it’s based on the feelings and roots of people from this [area],” he said. “They feel the same and they relate to one another, and I think that’s why that book was so popular, because people could relate to it. Even though this community has gotten a little bigger, I sense a similar feeling of belonging to something bigger than themselves, and I think that helps keep us on a progressive track.”

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