Walter Peterson, 1922-2011: New England Loses Another Giant

By John O. Harney

New Hampshire governor and longtime NEBHE delegate and chair, Walter Peterson died at age 88 on Wednesday, June 1.

Walter attended William and Mary College and the University of New Hampshire before serving as a naval officer in the Pacific theater of World War II. After the war, he graduated from Dartmouth College. In 1948, with his father and brother, he founded The Petersons Inc. Real Estate in Peterborough, N.H.

He served four terms in the New Hampshire Legislature, one as majority leader and two as speaker. He was elected governor in 1968 and served two terms. He served as president of the New Hampshire Constitutional Convention in 1974.

He was president of Franklin Pierce College (now university) for 20 years and, in retirement, he served as interim president of UNH and interim commissioner of the New Hampshire Community Technical Colleges. He also chaired the New Hampshire Postsecondary Education Commission, the New Hampshire College and University Council, the New Hampshire Charitable Fund and NEBHE and was a director of the New England Education Loan Marketing Corporation.

NEBHE President Michael K. Thomas told NEBHE friends: “It would be difficult to overstate the value and impact of Walter’s leadership and his support for NEBHE over many years.  Moreover, his leadership in government, business and education have had a long and lasting impact in New Hampshire, New England and beyond.”

Thomas visited Walter and his wife Dorothy a few weeks ago at their home in Peterborough. “Despite his disease and treatment, both he and Dorothy were upbeat and positive, talking of happenings in the community and church and New Hampshire politics. He talked fondly of his time as president of Franklin Pierce and his pleasure with how the institution continued to move forward. He reflected upon his philosophy of leadership, which was to endeavor to get people of different views and interests to ‘work it out’ and to ‘get things done.’ Dorothy showed me a wall filled with photos of big game hunts as a young man with his father, his time as a legislator and governor and as a college president.  She laughed at how some people joked that his official portrait as president of Franklin Pierce, with Walter attired in  academic robes, made him look like a Pope. The photos encapsulated a life of service, leadership and a pragmatic optimism.”

Thomas’s predecessor, former NEBHE President Jack Hoy, called Peterson “unflappable throughout his career with a great sense of humor and a very kind man.” Hoy lauded Peterson for his retirement accomplishments of chairing and serving as acting president of UNH and creating “the amalgamation of tech colleges into a full-scale community college system.” Hoy quipped that “every bloody Republican presidential candidate in the county would come down in abeyance to Walter’s door.”

I remember Walter as utterly unpretentious. When he stepped in to be interim president at UNH, I mentioned to him that my brother’s paintings were being shown in the UNH gallery. His face lit up. “I go there once in a while. I like art,” he said innocently. A bear of a man and avid sports fan who played semi-pro basketball himself, he took pride in his pioneering work to recruit international students to Franklin Pierce for basketball and academics.

Not surprisingly, NEBHE named its highest award the Governor Walter R. Peterson Award for Leadership. Recipients have fittingly included great New England leaders George Mitchell, Jeanne Shaheen, Patrick Leahy and the late Ted Kennedy.

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.



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