John M. Peterson '62

  • John Peterson
    John: Right.... Well, I really hadn’t thought too much about college until one of my high school classmates showed me a catalogue from Grinnell and said he thought it was a pretty interesting college. And I looked at it, and it did seem pretty interesting. I did look at a couple other colleges. I looked at Dartmouth and I looked at Carleton.
  • John Peterson
    John: I’d actually just maybe heard of Dartmouth way back when I was a freshman in high school and at some point I was asked to, during my sophomore year, write out where I might like to go to college and I wrote out Dartmouth ‘cause I’d just heard of it. And my History teacher, who’d given out the questionnaire, I asked him where Dartmouth was and he said, “Hanover, New Hampshire,” but you have to be a genius or a chip to get in there. And then I’d heard about Carleton, I guess, so I applied to all three; got accepted to all three. Then I discovered that Dartmouth was a men’s college so I forgot about that one.
  • John Peterson
    John: I visited Carleton. I visited Grinnell. My impression was the students at Carleton worked all the time and didn’t have any fun, and Grinnell students just seemed to have a better attitude and they were both academically equal, at least, from anything I could hear from anybody else. So- and... one of my classmates from Moline High, Bill Parsons, was going to go here and his sister was a student here, was a senior the year we were freshman. And.. they talked up the College, and I was impressed.
  • John Peterson
    John: The College seemed to have a good attitude. Talked with Robert Sauers, the director of admissions, and I asked him, I said, “Y’know, you send out invitations to quite a few more students than you have places for." And I said, "What happens if more students accept your invitation than you expect?” He said, “Well, then, the director of admissions has made a terrible mistake and it’s up to the rest of the faculty to work it out.” So I thought that was pretty good, too. He had a sense of humor.
  • John Peterson
    John: I enjoyed my time at Grinnell. I was in North Younker. Bill Parsons and I were roommates, and we had a routine. We did get to bed at a reasonable hour. I came to Grinnell expecting that I was going to be up ‘till 3 o’clock every morning studying, and unless I wanted to study in the lounge, that didn’t happen. So, I had to make... I had a very clear schedule of what I would study. There was a time, there was two hours for each class. Two hours for French, two hours for Chemistry. Two hours for whatever, and I pretty much kept to that schedule. If I had a little time left over well, then I might apply it to something else but by keeping myself to the schedule, I did OK. I got my best grades my freshman- my first semester my freshman year. The best grades my entire college career.
  • John Peterson
    John: Socially, Grinnell was kind of interesting too, because I figured out that during my first semester freshman year, I dated more than I did my entire time in high school. A lot of it had to do with the fact that our residence halls pushed things like that. They would arrange coffee dates for all of their freshman. So, it was a good experience. I had- y'know, I got involved socially.
  • John Peterson
    John: One of the questions are things- faculty members. I can’t say that there was one that was particularly influential, but I can remember things from a number of them. I remember particularly Joe Danforth, my Chemistry professor. He would give us sample tests beforehand. He said, “Y'know, if I tell you what’s gonna be on the test, I know you’re gonna learn it.” He also had some aphorisms. He said, “Y'know, this doesn’t mean anything, but you have to learn to say it, this way.” Or, “If you switch the axes on a graph and plot it out, the data will still be valid, but nobody will know what you’re talking about.” So, that was very helpful, very practical guy. And he also said a good word for me at Duke, because he had a colleague there and I went to grad school in Biochemistry at Duke, somewhat because of Dr. Danforth’s encouragement.
  • John Peterson
    John: I had come to college wanting to be, first choice - engineer, second choice - marine biologist and third choice - physician. I took Calculus; I got As for my- both semesters, but never felt I understood it very well. So I thought Engineering was probably not for me. I got turned down for a summer program at Friday Harbor in Marine Biology, so you don’t learn much Marine Biology at Grinnell. I decided that I probably had to go into Medicine, but then I discovered Biochemistry, thanks to... partly to my Organic Chemistry. It was- part of our Organic Chemistry was some Biochemistry. Sounded pretty interesting.
  • John Peterson
    John: And, when I took Embryology, Dr. Mendoza had us read articles, small articles from Scientific American, and I came across Avery- MacCleod - McCarty’s story in which they had put dead virulent pneumococi into a rabbit along with live avirulent pneumococi and the rabbit died and they recovered the virulent ones from the blood. Very interesting stuff. And it turned out that there was a professor at Grinnell who was working- not at Grinnell, but in Duke who was working in that, so I wound up applying to Duke for Biochemistry.
  • John Peterson
    John: And, I got accepted there and at Hopkins, but Duke was a very welcoming place. One of the girls from the previous class at Grinnell had gone to Duke, and was in Biology there, and I wrote her a letter and asked her what she thought about Duke. She wrote back and said something like, “When I think of Durham, I think about flowers, the smell of flowers in the springtime, the smell of honeysuckle.” Anyway, Duke sounded much better than Hopkins, so I went there. They were- they offered me a job in the summer. They were basically very hospitable when I wanted to come look at the place before making a decision
  • John Peterson
    John: I think, not a pleasant thing, but probably one of the most remarkable things for me at Grinnell was the beginning of the 1960s. Grinnell was a nice, comfortable place. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the academic atmosphere, the social life. I was out for swimming my freshman year. Sophomore year my roommate and I, Bill Parsons, accepted the College’s offer to live in Bloom House, with the proviso that if we did that, then we would be officers for the new dorm, East and West Norris, which were going to be built. And so, we went and lived in Bloom House.
  • John Peterson
    John: Well, one night, one afternoon, a number of students that lived there, Tom Knott, I don't know, a couple other people, were making these posters, in our- in the lounge, and one of them said, “AFROTC: Association For the Realization Of Thermonuclear Catastrophe.” I thought that was pretty funny. I was in ROTC. But, y'know, it was- I didn’t think this was anything serious until they picketed the ROTC ball. And then, I realized that something bad was happening here, and that was kind of my initiation to the 1960s. I never was in sympathy with these people, but y'know, it's- It was a remarkable transition point. I can just- that was the point at which the 1960s started for me.
  • John Peterson
    John: There was a question here about the most influential book I read while I was here at Grinnell. I read a lot but actually, probably my most influential book was read just after I left Grinnell, which was Ayn Rand’s, Atlas Shrugged. It kinda put a lot of things I’d been thinking about in perspective. So, that was probably one of the most influential books I’ve ever read, although I do remember a lot of things that I read while I was here, books that I enjoyed.
  • John Peterson
    John: It may sound funny, but I was impressed with reading Cardinal John Henry Newman’s, On the Scope and Nature of University Education. We had to read it for one of our Humanities courses. I was- my class was the last class to come in before they had the formal Humanities program, so I did audit some of these. I had Joe Wall for a History professor. He was very good, really enjoyed his History lectures. I remember his saying that the m- every one of my professors had some little aphorisms and things, but I remember particularly Joe Wall saying that he thought that the best evidence for the validity of the Catholic Church was that Talleyrand took extreme unction on his deathbed.
  • John Peterson
    John: Now Talleyrand, for those who don’t recall much about him, Bishop Talleyrand went through the period of the French Revolution. And with every change of regime, the one’s going out got their heads cut off as the new ones came in, and Talleyrand seemed to be more or less always at the gates of the city welcoming new people in. He went through this period and did not lose his head. So, that was fairly interesting.
  • John Peterson
    John: I had good professors. I- Ken Christiansen in Biology. Very well organized, really enjoyed his classes. I went cave exploring with him. He introduced me to cave exploring. One time there was a notice on a bulletin board said, “Caving anyone? See Doc C.” So, talked to him, went cave exploring. Actually came back early one Christmas vacation to go caving. And we practiced repelling in the Science Building, down the- in the stairwell. But, Christiansen was an excellent teacher. I really enjoyed his organized approach to Biology.
  • John Peterson
    John: It’s interesting, the first semester, the Biology classes were evenly divided and second semester most of us had switched from Dr. Fishman to Dr. Christiansen. Fishman had about 20 students and Fishman ha- Christiansen had about 80, because he was such a good lecturer.
  • John Peterson
    John: I’m gonna look at the little cheat sheet and see what else I’ve forgotten.... Y'know, I think one of the things that impressed me most about Grinnell, especially after I went to Duke, was that I could walk down the sidewalk here, and I’d see somebody that I really didn’t know, and I’d say “Hello” or “Good morning,” and they’d respond to me. It was like this was a community. We were all together. I did that at Duke a couple times and people looked at me like, “What’s wrong with you?” So, the atmosphere at Grinnell always was very good.
  • John Peterson
    John: I think, overall it was a wonderful experience, I'm sure. I’m sure that when I get out of here I’ll remember all sorts of things that I should’ve mentioned. It was interesting too, my Organic Chemistry professor, and I guess, you know, experiences- this is an interesting experience. My Organic Chemistry professor also taught square dance, so I learned square dancing here.
  • John Peterson
    John: I especially appreciated his approach to Organic Chemistry. It was the big flunkout course for people headed for med school, and his approach was that if you got, I think, 95 or above you had an A. If you got an 85 up to 95, you had a B. Anything under that was a C and you were offered the opportunity to drop while passing. He gave one first semester A in five years, but there were a couple second semester As. But, you were not competing against each other, you were competing against a standard. So the... that was a particularly useful thing in terms of helping people learn because we worked with each other.
  • John Peterson
    John: We would go down to one of the study rooms in Burling Library, and they had a big blackboard, and we would quiz each other on named reactions and tests. So, we helped each other study for it, because it was a noncompetitive atmosphere. We were competing for a standard, and that was a wonderful attitude and that’s in contrast to what I’ve heard about at other colleges. Particularly, I heard that as undergraduates at Duke, one should not, near a test time, ask people questions. You should spare them the necessity of lying to you. So, Grinnell really was good in that manner. There was a lot of cooperative studying. A good atmosphere.
  • John Peterson
    John: So, I’m glad I went here. It’s interesting, too, what the price was. I think when I started out the price was around $1200 a year, and by the time – maybe it’s $1400. Somewhere in the mid-range, there. When I graduated the tuition, my last year, was $2250, I think. Twenty-two hundred and fifty.
  • John Peterson
    John: I also had the opportunity while I was at Grinnell to go on the Oberlin College Summer Language program in France, for 1960. One of my professors, Mr. Smith, read a note from Oberlin College saying that they were prepared to accept one, possibly two Grinnell students in their Oberlin College Summer Language Program. And as soon as the class was over, I was up there, y'know, “I want this.” So I signed up and was accepted and actually Jeanne Gissenaas and Gretchen Osterhof were also accepted to the program, all three of us. Gretchen decided not to go but Jeanne and I went. it was a very good experience, a wonderful experience.
  • John Peterson
    John: When I came back, I thought I was gonna try to do a junior year in France and become a French major, but eventually decided that I would never develop an acceptable accent. And even though I had one of my professors, Harold Clapp, offer to help me in terms of going to the Committee on Academic Standing and getting it approved, I ultimately decided not to do it.
  • John Peterson
    John: He was a great professor. I had... I think it was French Drama with him. The summer after I’d come back from France, the start of the summer of ’61, he loaned me a book on Italian so that I could study Italian at home, during the summer. He had made some comment to the effect that his doctors had said he was the healthiest-looking sick person they knew. When I came back in the fall, he was dead. Died of lung cancer. I returned the book to his family. So that... But, excellent teacher and very willing to help out a student.
  • John Peterson
    John: So, my excellent teachers: I really think I remember Joe Danforth, Bill Neville, Harold Clapp, Ken Kleinschmidt, very good there. Mr. Smith, in French. They’re standouts. I also had a very good advisor, a gentleman named Maurice Boatman. At least as a freshman, he was a very good advisor, very helpful, and...
  • John Peterson
    John: During our- It was interesting. We had hazing, but it was pretty benign sort of stuff. Actually it was kind of fun. Hell night, Boatman offered us refuge in his home. We just had to give the password, “Wilson,” which was his middle name, to get there. My roommate and I had the task of finding ten bricks stamped “Des Moines and Oskaloosa,” and have each one signed by a different council- member of the Council of House Presidents.
  • John Peterson
    John: We didn’t find a- what we did was, we found some bricks and we got a guy at the railroad station to stamp them “Des Moines and Oskaloosa” with a rubber stamp, and then we went around to get them signed by the house presidents, except the house presidents, very few of them would actually come out and sign ‘em because they were afraid they were gonna be kidnapped. So they said, “You sign it and we’ll say that we signed it for you.”
  • Tamara Grbusic & John Peterson
    Tamara: Wow.John: So I thought our hazing was rather benign, and it was kind of fun. And overall, I think I would’ve... on the basis of my experience then, I would certainly recommend Grinnell to a child of mine, though mine chose to go to Stanford in Illinois. So, I hope Grinnell is as welcoming and as friendly as it was when I was here. I’m impressed with all the new buildings, and everything.... And thanks for the opportunity.Tamara: Thank you very much for your story.
Alumni oral history interview with John M. Peterson '62. Recorded June 2, 2012.
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