Remembering John Peterson: professor, mentor, friend, adventurer

Professor John Peterson - Rafting
John Peterson, a beloved professor, bandmate, husband, father, coworker, friend and adventurer, passed away in a climbing accident on March 5, 2017 at the age of 61.

Peterson joined the Western community in 2005 and quickly made his mark on the university with his congenial spirit, drive for knowledge and ability to persuade even the most reluctant to join him on an adventure.

“John was larger than life. We believed he could do anything, and we were right. We also believed he was invincible. We could go with him anywhere, and somehow we would be invincible, too. If John said we would climb a mountain on the moon's surface next week, I'd start packing my bag,” said Greg Haynes, assistant professor of music. “He treated us to countless adventures and would push us to achieve things we never thought possible. It was the greatest honor to be John's research partner and to teach and present alongside him.”

Originally from the Denver metro area, Peterson grew up frequenting the mountains with his parents and three younger brothers. In his high school and college years, he took up rock climbing, cross-country skiing, whitewater kayaking, hiking and more—along with computer science and classical music.   

Peterson earned his Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from University of Denver (DU)—where he also met his future wife, Marti.  He went on to earn a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering from Colorado University-Metro Denver.  While at DU and Metro, John programmed for the Denver Research Institute.  He then earned his Doctor of Philosophy in Computer Science from the University of Utah. 

He then taught as an assistant professor at University of Arizona, in Tucson, before moving to the East Coast to work as a Research Scientist at Yale University for 14 years.  At Yale, he worked with other members of the Haskell Group to develop and implement the Haskell Functional Programming Language.

Yearning to be back in the Colorado mountains, Peterson headed west to bring his expertise and passion to Western.  Here he indulged his love of Computer Science, music, rock climbing, kayaking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing, all in one place.

At Western, Peterson helped the Computer Science program flourish; introduced the Music Technology minor with Haynes; ran the summer Computer Science, Music and Computer Music camps for middle and high schoolers; and played the trombone (and comedian) in the Symphony Band.  

“As a relative newcomer I did not know John nearly as well as many or most of you, and I walked away saddened by that fact,” President Greg Salsbury said. “The heartfelt sentiments and stories from relatives and friends all over the globe, and the standing room only [at his memorial] were testimony to an obviously great person who touched hundreds, probably thousands in his lifetime.”

Throughout all of his moves and residencies, Peterson inspired—and convinced—those around him to learn, adventure and get outside.

Students and alumni remember Peterson as more than just a professor. He mentored students, pushing them to try more both in and outside of the classroom. He spent endless hours with students in the “nerd corner” of Leslie J. Savage Library’s mural room.

“JP was an amazing professor, mentor and friend. He taught me that for anything I do in life, to do it to the fullest … JP didn't just teach his students, he truly and deeply cared for them,” alumnus Asher Holloman said. “He mentored and supported me for years while I was dealing with some personal battles. I am going to miss JP and will never forget what he did for me and everyone else. No matter where I go in life JP helped me get there and will always be there supporting all of us.”

Peterson is survived by his wife, Marti, and sons, Eric and Jay. He will be remembered and missed by the Western community and beyond for his adventurous spirit, humor and inclusiveness.

Read more tributes to Peterson, or submit your own

Monday, March 27, 2017 - 10:30am