Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

October 25, 2001

OBITUARY: Joel E. Peterson

Joel E. Peterson, a Pitt mechanical engineering professor for more than 40 years, died of complications from chronic myelogenous leukemia on Oct. 15, 2001. He was 67.

A memorial service and reception will be held at 2 p.m. Nov. 3 at First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, at Ellsworth and Morewood avenues in Shadyside.

Campbell Yates, retired chairperson of mechanical engineering, called Peterson "one of the best teachers we've ever had in the department."

Peterson's teaching specialties included aerodynamics, propulsion and automatic control of airplanes. Students and colleagues praised his clear explanations of complex material, his open-door policy and candor as an adviser, and the way he continually fine-tuned his lectures.

But no one called Peterson an easy grader. In the field of aeronautics, not even Orville and Wilbur Wright earned an A+ from Peterson. "They didn't design their airfoils right. Made them too thin," Peterson told the University Times in 1991, the year he was awarded the Chancellor's Distinguished Teaching Award. Four years earlier, he received the engineering school's Beitle-Veltri Teaching Award.

Yates, as department chairperson, sat in on some of Peterson's lectures and remembered Peterson as being exceptionally well-organized. "In engineering, you do a lot of writing on the board — equations and so forth," Yates said. "He would stop and make sure that students understood every step of the way. Some of us, I'm afraid, would sometimes get up there and rattle off equations across the board, and students would be running six words behind and wouldn't know what was going on."

Peterson likened his classroom presentations to engineering projects; he broke subjects down into small, understandable components. "I sit down and organize a thought process through," he said in a University Times interview. "I make the basics very clear so there's a good, solid foundation to what's happening."

During the decade prior to his retirement in June 1998, Peterson directed Pitt engineering students in an annual contest to build a racing car. Every year, the Pitt team would compete against teams from Detroit universities.

For 30 years, he advised Pitt's chapter of Triangle Fraternity, and was instrumental in its purchase of a house. In gratitude, the fraternity gave Peterson its service award.

Peterson's family was always the center of his life, said his wife of 40 years, Jean. Despite his teaching and research in such areas as theoretical subsonic aerodynamics and experimental automotive aerodynamics, Peterson found time to help his children build a two-story tree house (complete with windows, shutters and electricity) as well as an underground house dug into a hillside on the family's property in Churchill.

"When our daughter and son were small, he spent hours playing with them. Building blocks in the living room were almost a nightly affair," Jean Peterson said.

One of the few times Peterson shut himself away from his family was when he was preparing his next lecture. "Even if a lecture was practically perfect, he always thought he could improve it," his wife said.

Peterson's other interests included photography, auto repair (he kept his '46 Plymouth running for 22 years) and researching family history. For 29 years, he managed the family-owned farm in Illinois that his Swedish great-grandfather started. During the 1990s, Peterson wrote a 1,000-page account of his parents' lives and his own story.

Peterson was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia in early 1998. He participated in trials for a new drug, Gleevec, for the disease. For that reason, the family requests that memorial contributions be sent to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (specify for Gleevec research), Two Gateway Center 13N, Pittsburgh 15222.

In addition to his wife, Peterson is survived by his son, Ken; his daughter, Jennifer Magruder; his sister, Karin Clark, and six grandchildren.

— Bruce Steele a

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 5

Leave a Reply