In 1847, shortly after Amos Lawrence commissioned three Methodist ministers—William Harkness Sampson, Henry Root Colman, and Reeder Smith—to establish a school on the land he owned in the Wisconsin Territory, he needed to tell the world about his fledgling college.
And so it was that Rick Peterson began his career as Lawrence University’s media relations director.
Or so it seems, now that the university community reflects upon Rick’s tenure as he prepares to retire from Lawrence University on Friday, August 17, after nearly 39 years of service.
Lest you reach for your calculator, that’s 23% of the years that Lawrence has operated.
Rick joined the Lawrence staff in December 1979, after Lee Ester, then Lawrence’s director of public relations, lured him away from the Kaukauna Times, where Rick had been covering sports for 18 months after graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. The Oak Creek (Wis.) native’s first day on the job came just two weeks after Richard Warch had been inaugurated as the fourteenth president of Lawrence University, which he would lead for 25 years.
Nearly four decades, two presidents and thousands of articles, stories, and press releases later, Rick Peterson stands on the threshold of retirement leaving a legacy of advocacy for the university that few have matched.
Dependable and dedicated
Mark Burstein, Lawrence University president, knows that Lawrence will miss Peterson’s touch. “Rick has a clear sense of Lawrence’s strengths that comes out in everything he writes or prepares about the university,” says Burstein. “It’s a unique gift that is irreplaceable.”
When asked her impressions of Rick’s contributions to Lawrence, Beth DeStasio, Raymond H. Herzog Professor of Science and Professor of Biology, enthusiastically leads with, “Well, I just love Rick.” She adds, “He is one of the hardest-working people at Lawrence, always digging for more information because he truly wants to know what he’s writing about—and he’s really been able to capture the essence of Lawrence in everything he’s written.”
“He’s one of the most dependable, hardest-working colleagues I’ve had in my long tenure at Lawrence.”
-Cal Husmann, Vice President for Development
That dependability made a big difference with local media, with whom Peterson built a strong relationship. Ed Berthiaume, news director of the Post Crescent, worked with Rick for 25 years, and praises his reliability, accuracy, and honesty, even when the story may not be flattering about the university. “If Rick didn’t know the answer to something, he would work to find us someone in the community to connect with.”
Berthiaume notes that this kind of collaboration is unusual, “The way Rick treated people here at the Post Crescent was always professional and always respectful—and it helped forge a good relationship.”
A human touch… with a twist
Peterson used his gift for writing not just for telling the Lawrence story, but for bringing joy and delight to his colleagues and friends.
Liz Boutelle, one of the university’s art directors, has worked with Rick for 18 years and says she’ll miss his thoughtful gestures. “Everybody that knows him would get a birthday card from him,” she says, adding with slight amazement, “And not just a birthday card, but one with a big paragraph personalized to each person.”
“When he sent you a note, it was with perfect penmanship and always in a straight line like he wrote it with a ruler,” says John Tharp, former Lawrence University men’s basketball coach.
Tharp remembers how Peterson, who has been a scorekeeper at Vikings games for years, would come down to the team room in Alexander Gymnasium before basketball games just to sit with him. “He would have his lunch bag with him, and he and I would sit and talk while he was eating his lunch, and we would laugh.” Tharp adds, “I think it was his way of keeping me calm and relaxed. It was always a treat. He would say, ‘Good luck, Johnny,’ and then walk out that back door.”
Joe Vanden Acker, Lawrence sports information director, says he holds the job that Peterson invented as the university’s first SID. He learned a valuable lesson from Rick early in his tenure. “Rick was in my office. I was finishing a can of soda pop, and put my can in the garbage. Rick said, ‘Wait, there’s a spot for those,’ and he took me back to his office, and opened his closet, where there was a cardboard box where he was saving the cans.” Vanden Acker adds, “He was running a recycling program before Lawrence even had one.”
Ariela Rosa worked as an intern for Peterson from 2015 to 2016, and notes that she learned important lessons in that role. “I came to his department without any experience in journalistic writing, and Rick was always very patient with me, not interested in just fixing mistakes but in trying to explain why we do things the way we do them.”
Her work with Peterson prepared her for her current role as Lawrence University’s associate director of corporate, foundation, and sponsored research. She notes, “When I arrived to Rick as a student, I was always in a rush. But after working with him, I slow down more, am more careful, and double- and triple-check my work.”
She says that working with Peterson had an additional—and unexpected—benefit, “I received a world-class education in classic rock from Rick.”
And how did this education come about? “My fondest memories are of him playing 103.1 WOGB from clock-in to clock-out, with him quizzing me almost daily.”
Behold the power of Peterson
“The Lawrence community will miss Rick,” says Ken Anselment, Vice President for Enrollment and Communication, “And I will miss him personally.”
Anselment adds, “Rick brought a style, voice, and sense of humor to the Lawrence stories he has written for decades. That combination of energy, production, and persistence is a gift to behold, and we are fortunate and grateful to have beheld it for so long.”
Despite it being closed for the summer while most students are on break, the Viking Room will temporarily reopen its doors to Rick’s friends and colleagues from 4 to 6 p.m. on Thursday, August 16, to celebrate his retirement.
Rick Peterson may have written thousands of stories about Lawrence over his nearly four decades here, but Lawrence wrote this one about him.