A Prince of Serendip

History professor Ed Peterson marks his 50th year at UW-River Falls in 2004. A chronicle of his incredible life and career by Brenda K. Bredahl, '90
(Published May 2003)

Tucked in South Hall's second-floor southeast corner is Room 224 where history professor Ed Peterson has taught for almost a half-century. The room in the 1897 building is sparse—there's no multi-media instructor's station or whiteboard with markers, just a pencil sharpener and a few yellowed map spools up front in the small room. Dataports are unused along the baseboard, and an overhead projector holds Peterson's jacket. It's one of the sunniest rooms on campus, overlooking the library entrance and the hub of campus.

Books by Edward N. Peterson

  • "Secret Police and the Revolution: The Fall of the German Democratic Republic." Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.
  • "Russian Commands and German Resistance: The Soviet Occupation 1945-1949." NY: P. Lang, 1999.
  • "Analytical History of World War II." NY: P. Lang, 1995.
  • "The Many Faces of Defeat: The German People's Experience in 1945." NY: P. Lang, 1990.
  • "The American Occupation of Germany: Retreat to Victory." Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1978.
  • "The Limits of Hitler's Power." Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.
  • "Hjalmar Schacht: For and Against Hitler, a Political-economic study of German 1923-1945." Boston: Christopher Pub House, 1954.

The most senior member of the faculty, Peterson's uniform is typically a crisp short-sleeved light blue oxford shirt, charcoal pants, and slip-on walking shoes. He brings no lecture notes or visual aids to class, and a few students deposit late papers on the front table. He's sitting on the table, swinging his legs and spinning his chalk, greeting students as they saunter in.

After an informal chat about the situation in Iraq, Peterson , 77, begins History 327, World War I to World War II, with a lecture about Japanese stereotypes. Names, places, dates and ideas flow from brain to hand to chalkboard, and into student notebooks. With impeccable fluidity covering hundreds of years, Peterson provides context leading up to Japanese involvement. “When we talk about Pearl Harbor later in the semester, I will argue that it was preventable,” he contends.

At the end of the lecture, he posits one more idea. “Next week I will argue that although we fought the Japanese [in WWII], we were closer to them culturally than to our ally—the Chinese—symbolized by the importance of baseball in both cultures.” What is certain, Peterson says, is that history is meant to be interpreted. Facts are not absolute. Serendipity happens.

A “prince” of serendip

Serendipity, it seems, is a recurring theme in Peterson's life, work and nature. In the Persian tale from which the word is derived, three intelligent princes of the island of Serendip (Sri Lanka) set out on a journey, as admonished by their father, to acquire maturity and wisdom. As they meander, they apply courage, kindness and sagacity to make the best of life's trials. They return ready for responsibility—making many friends, helping everyone they meet, and becoming mentors and teachers at the kingdom.

In reflecting on life as a missionary, veteran, husband, father, teacher, scholar and author of seven books, it's clear that Peterson , who marks his 50th year at UW-RF in 2004, is a serendipitist—possessing the gifts of humor, compassion and generosity like the heroes in the ancient fable. Indeed, much of his own life was a series of happy accidents.

Field ministry to battlefield

The son of a clothing salesman and pastor whose church was in the slums of St. Joseph, Mo., Peterson started his first vocation when the church's regional spiritual leader thought that Ed should be ordained and enter the ministry. He agreed, and at 17 spent a summer proselytizing in Missouri and Illinois.

While traveling, he discovered a book debating his church's founding. He decided to leave the church after serious contemplation. No longer having a deferment, he was drafted. This eventually led to a tour of duty in Germany during WWII's final months— an experience that laid the foundation for his family life, vocation and scholarly endeavors.

In January 1945, Peterson and his company on the front arrived at a bombed-out schoolhouse in the liberated province of Alsace where he befriended a teacher, who taught him the language. By April, he was the interpreter when his squad occupied a house, ousting a dentist and his family to their dental office in town.

Peterson's humanitarianism came through. “I felt sorry for them, and being the interpreter, I helped carry their belongings to the dental office,” Peterson remembers. “Despite non-fraternization rules, quickly I became part of their family, spending evenings at dinner, playing chess, reading their books, listening to their daughter play piano and learning to speak German.”

Although scheduled to go stateside and prepare for duty in Japan, Peterson was instead transferred to the 3rd Infantry Division to remain in postwar Germany for two more years.

“I was happy; I wanted to stay and learn about the culture,” says Peterson . Because he had a bit of college, an officer asked him to run a library for servicemen. He went to nearby Hersfeld to buy stationery items, and met a “very interesting” young woman named Ursula Schmidt, whose mother ran the store.

“Although she spoke English, I said, ‘Nein,' and insisted on speaking her language,” Peterson recalls of their first encounter. “So I would go back to the store—when I really didn't need anything. One evening I went to a concert and she was there, so I walked her home, and upon being asked in, was surprised to find the complete works of Mark Twain in their library,” says Peterson . “Ursula knew more about the great author of my home state than I did.” Their relationship blossomed.

A near-miss unites

Peterson arrived stateside in May 1947, but Ursula was still in Germany. Stationed at a Brooklyn base, his missions consisted of working on a transport ship that retrieved troops from Europe. When in Germany, Peterson had his shipmates cover for him while he hitchhiked to Frankfurt to visit Ursula. “We were trying desperately to get married,” he remembers, “but the anti-fraternization laws weren't lifted until fall 1947. Finally, in late October 1947, my ship left to pick up troops in Italy, and as we were leaving New York, another ship hit us. We were sent back to the harbor.”

But fortunately, the accident ended up uniting the young lovers. Unbeknownst to Ed , Ursula was about to board a plane for New York. Peterson was still there when she arrived, and he took her home to Missouri. He was discharged on December 12, 1947.

The accidental professor

Before he was drafted, Peterson attended junior college in St. Joseph, Mo. After the war, Ed , Ursula, and baby son John moved to UW-Madison in 1948 so that Ed could resume psychology studies. “I remember waiting outside the office for the psychology professor, and he had but a moment to talk,” says Peterson . “I just didn't like the psych course he had recommended, and I needed a class for 9 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.” A class in European history fit his schedule.

“I scored 98 on my first exam and decided to go for a Ph.D. in German history; and the rest IS history.” Continuing to study European history at UW-Madison, Peterson earned his B.A. in 1950, M.A. in 1951 and Ph.D. in 1953.

To River Falls

After a year teaching history at Eastern Kentucky State College, Peterson was hired by Walker Wyman, head of the social science division at Wisconsin State College-River Falls. Ed , Ursula, John, and new baby, Michael, were glad to be back in Wisconsin. Peterson served as chairman of the social science and history departments from 1963 to 1991.

During the Vietnam War, several former students wrote to Peterson about their experiences. Dave Sartori wrote, “Anything I say shouldn't be quoted,” in an Oct. 10, 1967 six-page letter outlining “Connie's” operations in Vietnam. Peterson later donated the letters to the University Archives and Area Research Center.

“It is hard for me to imagine what the history of River Falls, Pierce County and this university would be without Ed and Ursula Peterson ,” says Sue Ginter Watson, UW-RF Archivist. “Through their historical research, publications, perseverance and passion for saving community and univer-sity history we are able to study and view our past much more clearly. Their quiet, unassuming, humble, diligent and thorough efforts have made a tremendous difference on and off campus.”

Over the years, Ed and Ursula have been very active in the Pierce County Historical Association. Peterson has assisted his editor-wife on eight volumes of “Pierce County Heritage,” published by PCHA. He and Ursula are also remembered for their work in saving South Hall, the oldest campus building, from the wrecking ball in the mid-1970s. “Ursula was the brains and heart of the effort,” Peterson says.

Keeper of the flame

Amassing thousands of sick-leave hours, Peterson has never missed a class due to personal reasons since the birth of his younger son in 1954. “About the only class I missed before that was the fourth grade when I was quarantined with the measles,” he says. “I would have gone if they had let me.”

He still keeps in touch with alumni as editor of the history department newsletter, in its second decade. “His office door was always open,” says David B. Peterson , '80 and '91, who selected Peterson as his graduate adviser. “That's how he is; there was always a line of students waiting to see him.”

During his distinguished career, Peterson has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Social Science Research Council. He has presented papers and lectures at conferences from Bemidji, Minn., to London, England, at such groups as the German Studies Association and the Society for the History of American Foreign Relations. He is also a three-time recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Award given by a German foundation furthering scholarship in the culture.

At UW-RF, he teaches Origins of One World (Europe since 1660), German history and Hitler, WWI and WWII history and the capstone course in social science, required by many majors.

Peterson says that today's students are more urban—and urbane—than the young men and women from Wisconsin farms who primarily attended River Falls back in the '50s and '60s. “Students today might be enticed to go off to a more prestigious university,” Peterson says. “Back when I started teaching, one very bright student from Spring Valley didn't even think of going away to college any farther than River Falls. He ended up going to Stanford, and eventually earned a law degree.”

Other changes over the years include cultural mores and attitudes. “When I came here, girls were locked in and boys were locked out when Hathorn Hall was built. Women were not allowed to wear slacks, even in 20-below weather,” Peterson recalls. “It was also a struggle to get diversity on campus. We had a breakthrough in 1956 when Dr. Robert Bailey [the first African-American professor] was hired.”

Both of Peterson's sons are UW-RF alumni. John, '78, is a business manager for a union in Madison, and Michael, '76, is a cartographer and professor of geography at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

A royal task

In 2001 at the inauguration of Chancellor Ann Lydecker, UW-River Falls added a new tradition to its regalia—a ceremonial mace symbolizing leadership. The mace was hand-crafted out of Flame Birch Timeless Timber—wood from rare, old slow-growth logs found on lake and river bottoms. It is accented with black walnut inlays and two bronze university seals. At the university's most important ritual—commencement — Peterson carries the ceremonial mace as the most senior member of the faculty.

"Alumni at gatherings within the state and across the country routinely identify Dr. Peterson as one of their most memorable professors," says Chancellor Lydecker. “As he enters his 50th year of teaching, he continues to be excited about his students, his discipline, and his university. We are proud that he has been, and remains, such an important part of UW-River Falls.”