Minnesota Humanities Center

A tribute to Dr. James Peterson (1942–2021): In Memoriam

Posted November 5, 2021

James L. Peterson, who served on the Minnesota Humanities Center (MHC) Board of Directors from 2009 to 2018, died on October 30, 2021. In May 2018 he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and lived an almost unheard-of additional three and a half years.

Jim brought to the MHC board a strong record of accomplishment in the world of education and public outreach. Initially teaching high school biology, he earned a doctorate in entomology, and in 1984 became president and CEO of the Science Museum of Minnesota, where he served until 2003. In that year he became president of his alma mater, Gustavus Adolphus College, a position he held until retiring in 2008.

Jim believed fervently in MHC’s mission. He knew from his many professional positions that if you believe in the mission of an organization you need to be willing to ask people to support it: fundraising, to be specific. He was an exemplary chair of MHC’s Development Committee, insisting that every board member is de facto a member of that committee.

“Jim Petersen was a true example of servant leadership, promoting collaboration with empathy, grace, and kindness,” noted Kristin White, immediate past Board Chair. “I had the honor of meeting Jim six years ago when he led the development efforts for the Humanities Center and his skill with building relationships and his passion for compassionately finding ways to bring people together is why Jim was a giant among men. He will be dearly missed and always a lifelong member of our humanities family.”

Jim’s widow, the Rev. M. Susan Peterson, was senior pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul 1990–2010, and before that was associate pastor 1985–90.

The MHC community sends condolences to Susan and their son and daughter and their families, with thanks for Jim’s capacious imagination, wise practicality, and gentle, sometimes even whimsical sense of humor—all of which every organization needs for its flourishing. MHC envisions a society that is connected, curious, and compassionate. Jim Peterson lived it.

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Patrick Henry Headshot
By: Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry is retired executive director, Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, and monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. He has been a member of MHC’s Board of Directors since 2013.