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Ben Peterson

In the winter of 1968, a new building was opened on Coe campus - Peterson Hall.  Peterson Hall was to be the new science building, providing a combination for the history of strong, quality teaching in the sciences with the best in high tech, modern facilities.  When Dr. Ben Peterson, the namesake for the building, was taken through to tour the building in his wheel chair, he could only remark: "It's out of this world."

The new science building must have seemed like a totally different world from the first science building Dr. Peterson stepped into when he arrived as a student at Coe in 1915. He obtained his master's and doctor's degrees at the University of Iowa, returning to teach at Coe in 1920.  His impressive career was dotted with a number of prestigious honors.  He was the department chair and published a number of scientific papers in the 1920s in the Industrial and Engineering Chemists Journal, Journal of Chemistry and Metallurgy, Journal of American Chemical Society, and Journal of Physical Chemistry.  He also served as president of the Iowa Academy of Science and as an examiner on the Iowa Basic Science board.  Later in his career, he was honored with the American Chemical Society's award for meritorious achievement in teaching and research.  In 1960, the Manufacturing Chemical Association named him one of the six college professors to win their teacher's award.  The award winners were described as people who "...have been personally responsible over a period of years for awakening in students a genuine interest in chemistry, for inspiring them to serious intellectual effort in studying that field and for developing that interest into a continuing dedication." Today, the award and medal presented to him remain on public display in Peterson Hall.

Dr. Peterson's impact as a chemist extended beyond his national/state recognition and into the classroom.  Dr. Peterson dedicated his life to teaching, not just to his own personal research.  Dr. Bernie Pull, one of his former students, said, "We saw Dr. Ben (for that's what he insisted his students call him) a great deal of the time, not only in the classroom and the laboratory, but many times in his office or his home for hours of special and very personal attention and guidance.  Dr. Peterson's door was always open, as was his heart, to the problems and needs of his students."  His love for chemistry was infectious and one of his most astounding achievements was the great number of students who graduated majoring in chemistry, placing Coe within the top 100 schools nationwide for total chemistry majors.  At the time of his retirement, 33 of his students had gone to do graduate work in the sciences, at least 26 earning a Ph.D.

Notes on Peterson:

Cosmos printed a letter from Peterson that he wrote while he was serving in the military during WWI.  Peterson had been captain of the cadet corps in '17-18.  "Peterson left college in April, going to Camp Pike in the sanitary corps and from there was sent to France.  He had attempted to enlist a number of times before then, but had been refused each time because of ain injured shoulder. 

Letter from Lavenay, France; 22 Nov '18.  Sent to Bates. Describes his work testing water quality; works at a little field station in country; provides water for a hospital.  "It is great work and very interesting.  Hardly a soldier's job but someone has to do it." Talks about quality of the water and how they treat it with alum. "Our laboratory is a rather crude affair, but we have a good little library so we do very well."  Final paragraph: "We are stationed in the old province of Britany, and the dress of the older people is very picturesque. I hope to see more of France before going back, for it is a fascinating land."

Ltr in Alumni file on Co. H. 53rd Regt. Iowa National Guard, Co. D 1st Iowa Inf. 1916 and 133rd Inf.  These men (with one exception) served on the Mexican Border in 1916 and in WWI (9 were commissioned officers in WWI).  List of men: James Rogers, Charles Hedberg (x 18), Russel Ackerman, Cameron Cooper, Erwin Larson, William Lee, A. M. Parsons (x19), Ernest Peters, Dordon Dyrland (died in service), Wendell Osbrink, Royal Tuttle, Leocadio Ancheta (x 19), Fidel Arquero (x 23), Walter Morris (x 19), Joseph Brazil, and Ben Peterson.

Courier, May '49: Article by Peterson on the "old days" of his military outfit.

Dr. Frank Pennington, Peterson's successor as chem head, on his predecessor, at dedication of Peterson Hall: "He was a chemist, carpenter, plumber, electrician, counselor, orator, and above all, a teacher and friend."  Pennington recalling the past: "As I wander through the old science building, I recall the walls that he painted and the laboratory benches and fume hoods he built in the hot Iowa summers.  I remember the plumbing he fixed after the many times the Physics Department was flooded, the fuses he replace in overloaded electrical circuits, the apparatus he repaired.  And I remember the vast quantity of odds and ends saved for decades for the time that they might be needed."  "He often commented that 'good research uncovers more questions than it answers.'  He encouraged the development of instrumentation in the department although I had the feeling that he felt that using a spectrophotometer was not really chemistry."

Pennington recalls Peterson teaching chemistry to two small boys on Saturday mornings.  Peterson told Pennington, "They are too young to know it is supposed to be hard."  One later graduated from Coe and got a PhD in chemistry.

"I remember him gazing intently out the window, leaning on a pointer, gathering in the attention of his class and with a deep rumbling voice slowly beginning his oratory.Often speaking with the "rhythm of poetry."

Gazette reported at the time of his retirement (May '58) that 150 students had majored in chemistry under Ben Peterson; thirty had gone on to earn their Ph.D.'s.

Won election to the Cedar Rapids school board in 1952 and served for six years.

Excerpt from a letter to Dr. Joseph McCabe (Coe Pres) and William P. Whipple (Chairman, Bd of Trustees) on hearing that the new science building would be named Peterson Hall:

This honor, beyond comprehension, cannot derive from a spectacular, from a break-through, from any important discovery as all I have ever done is the daily assignment on a job I loved to do, each day bringing a new thrill of experience and each tomorrow an eager anticipation.  To come through the door from my office into the classroom, pick up the long pointer, complain a bit about the poor quality of four pieces of chalk to be used up during the hour, facing my "kids", the young and of gay heart, such was indeed reward enough for any man.  So, whatever it might be that the President and the Board of Trustees found worthy of his honor; to be included among the Galaxy of names on the Coe Campus, for me and mine it is wonderous [sic] beyond my poor power to express.

Ones name in stone or cast in bronze in a quiet place is one thing, but carved on the lintel over a doorway for hurrying, youthful feet, is, as Sir Winston might have it, Quite another matter.

On a day in early November, in the year one thousand nine hundred sixty seven, in my seventy-fifth year, lacking six of three score since I came to this place; content and with many memories, Sincerely and truly yours, Ben H. Peterson.

From Gazette interview, 10-4-57.

Born in Macedonia, Ia, June 6, 1893. 

Q: Why choose science and chemistry as life work?

A: "I grew up on a farm, and as far back as I can remember I've been curious about the differences of things--why some corn is white, why some is yellow and some red, what makes them act as they do."

Quoted in Gazette, 1/18/48, speaking at a chapel service: "Uncontent will always be a part of your lot.  Whooly contented people are kept in institutions."  Accomplishments in civilizations occur because of uncontented people.  Improvement comes from people who rebel against status quo.

Taught physics & athletics at Mt. Home, Idaho for one year, 1919-20.  Came back to Coe in '20 or '21 as a Laboratory Assistant, and hired as an Instructor in '22.

From Dora Jane Hamblin article on Peterson (10/11/42); probably the Gazette.  Another version of same article appeared in the Courier, Sept '42.

Peterson:  "The policy of the department is not to consider a student a finished chemist until he gets his doctorate."

Peterson: a frequent speaker at organizations, commencement exercises, etc.  One speech manuscript exists of a speech for members of Crescent and Sachem in the class of '51; at the Honors Chapel, 22 May '51.  Good humor, self-deprecation:

I have done this particular stunt since before most of you were born, and I am well aware of the most probably fact that your reaction will be It sounds like it.  But this record establishes its own proof of harmlessness, and likewise, its own proof that it hasn't benefited anybody or these results should have been attained long ago.  But, be that as it may be, this is another trial designed to discipline your souls to patience and endurance, so let's get it over with."

Peterson died in September of 1969.  Survived by his son Roger ('50) and wife Ada, who died six years later.

Hamblin's description: "Known as a hard taskmaster, a good story teller, an expert chemist, a war hater and a good fellow." 

Ltr from Richard F. Blomquist on Peterson as a teacher, written 12 July '80: "When I was at Coe in the depths of the depression, Ben had to teach all four years of Chemistry himself, without any assistance, a Herculean task that he managed well.  Not many young profs now would even attempt this.  In spite of all this work each year, he found time to get to know many students and to stimulate and encourage them in a time of economic depression...."

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