Ed Peterson loved teaching so much that he actually paid the state of Wisconsin to work as a professor of history at UW-River Falls. Peterson was 79, and well past retirement age. The retirement plan Peterson could have collected would have paid him more than teaching did. Peterson, however, was a self proclaimed creature of habit and wasn't interested in retiring; he loved teaching too much. So much in fact, he often joked that he hoped to die while lecturing in South Hall, which he and his wife Ursula had worked so hard to preserve.
Admitted to the Hudson hospital on March 23 with pneumonia, Peterson died on March 25, 2005, in United Hospitals in St. Paul of heart failure.
Family, friends, faculty and students paid final respects at the Congressional Church in River Falls on March 30 amidst the dreary rainfall of a springtime thunderstorm, a setting not representative of the life, passion for teaching, and energy that Peterson exhibited.
In the 51 plus years Peterson etched his legacy at UW-RF, he watched as class sizes increased and buildings he saw erected were torn down and replaced.
“Professors can get tenure here,” Peterson once joked. “Apparently buildings cannot.”
During the entire span of his teaching career, he only missed one class period. He prided himself on knowing as much about the people he met as possible.
“It always amused and amazed me how fast he knew everyone's background,” Ursula said. “He loved to see people's lives unfold before him.”
Interim Chancellor Virgil Nylander will remember Peterson as a unique individual who loved his teaching and his students.
“His death marked a sad day for the campus,” Nylander said. “ Ed was the best academic I've had the pleasure to know.”
Peterson's life began in St. Joseph, MO. on August 27, 1925. He proved himself to be an academic as he was the top male graduate in 1943 at St. Joseph Central High School. He attended junior college before being drafted into the U.S. Army on March 28, 1944. Peterson fought in WWII and met his wife, Ursula, in Germany during that time.
Upon returning home from Europe, Peterson received his AA degree and eventually transferred to UW-Madison where he received his B.A, M.B., and finally his Ph.D. in 1953. His time spent getting his education laid the foundation to a career in teaching. He spent one year teaching at Eastern Kentucky State College before coming to UW-RF in 1954.
During his teenage years, Peterson did missionary work for the reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints. His time spent doing this work and the teachings he received shaped the life he led.
“I remember once our garage door came down on his head with particular force,” John Peterson, Ed's son, said. “I was standing close by and I heard him shout ‘Hells Bells,' and those, ladies and gentleman, were the most profane words I ever heard him say.”
Peterson's two great loves in his life were his wife, Ursula, and teaching. Ask a person to describe Peterson, and they would invariably mention his passion for teaching.
“My dad was very lucky to find a life's work that he loved so much,” John Peterson said.
Peterson had an interest in what made people tick, especially what motivated people to do things.
“He wanted to know what you did why you did, and how you did,” Ursula Peterson said. “He was actually a modest and shy man, a fact that was well hidden by his charm and his great interest in people.”
In 1957, after being in River Falls for a few years, Peterson and his family finally built a house. John Peterson remembers his father's desk was centerpiece of the house, placed so he could look out the windows to the scenic backyard. Next to his desk on a bookshelf, Peterson kept pictures, a radio and a jar of treats.
“He stashed treats there that delighted his children and grandchildren,” John Peterson said.
Michael Peterson described his father through notes for a speech that Peterson once orated talking about why, after so many years, he still taught at UW-RF.
“My father was interested in what motivated people,” Michael Peterson said. “He explains his own motivations.”
The notes began by explaining that Peterson mused he was mentally unbalanced and that may explain why he still taught. But after a more thoughtful analysis, he described that the area, the school, the students and his colleagues all helped to make River Falls a lovely place to be and work. Especially, though, his passion for teaching, the students he taught and his partner in life, Ursula, made his job palatable.
Peterson leaves behind a legacy that will not be soon forgotten by family, friends or UW-RF. Peterson maintained correspondence with history graduates going back to his first years as a teacher in the 1950s and continuing to the present. He also gave the commencement address to the UW-RF graduates in December 2004, having won the University Distinguished Professor Award in 2004, the highest recognition for outstanding teaching that the university gives.
“Each of us creates ripples in the universe by living our lives and being part of families, making friendships, taking stands on various issues, and working to influence the ideas of others,” John Peterson said. “I think my dad's ripples were almost waves. Those waves may have irritated some, but I think others have ridden them to achieve great things on their own.”
Peterson's granddaughter, Cece Peterson, once heard an analogy that she found to be a fitting acknowledgment of those sentiments.
“Absence is to love as wind is to fire,” Cece Peterson said. “It extinguishes the small and enkindles the great.”
Besides the honors and awards Peterson received, professionally he was also a noted scholar, doing research in Germany every year and writing a number of books. He published his doctoral dissertation as well as seven other books in addition to his many scholarly papers and book reviews.
“ Ed performed a remarkable duty for this campus,” Nylander said.