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University community remembers Prof. Peterson

By Haley Glatthorn, Daily News Editor
and Tui Rademaker, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 10, 2012

Christopher Peterson, a respected University professor of psychology who made pioneering contributions to the field of positive psychology, died unexpectedly on Tuesday. He was 62.

His death was confirmed in an e-mail sent to psychology concentrators on Wednesday. The cause was not immediately known.

Peterson was well recognized in his field and had worked at the University for 26 years. His popularity among students was acknowledged when he received the Golden Apple Award for outstanding teaching in 2010.

While Peterson was given the opportunity to deliver a “last lecture” at the award ceremony, he chose instead to call the talk “The First Lecture.”

“People are also pulled by the future,” Peterson said at the time. “A first lecture is necessarily one that looks ahead. It is necessarily one that takes us into the future.”

At the event Peterson said while he had received many awards, the Golden Apple — which is given annually to a student-nominated University professor — was the most meaningful to him.

Peterson’s research focused primarily on “character strengths and how they pertain to such outcomes as happiness, achievement and physical well-being,” according to his University profile. "Character Strengths and Virtues," a book Peterson co-authored, defines character strengths as qualities that contribute to the presence of six major virtues in the human psyche.

Caroline Miller, a graduate student who studied under Peterson at the University of Pennsylvania, said one of his most well-known contributions to psychology is the Values in Action personality test, which he co-authored with UPenn Prof. Martin E.P. Seligman. The test, which Miller said has now been translated into several languages, analyzes the character strengths of individuals.

Miller fondly recalled the way Peterson treated his students with respect and optimism, noting that he had a likable sense of humor.

“Chris Peterson didn’t just do research and teach research about what makes for a good life, he also role modeled it for us,” Miller said. “‘Other people matter’ was his trademark phrase and he was one of those unique individuals who actually walked the walk, didn’t just talk the talk. That is why his passing is having such an incredible impact around the world.”

LSA junior Molly Martin, who is currently enrolled in Peterson’s Psychology 476 course, said she believes his legacy will continue to inspire students.

“Professor Peterson would put his heart into what he was (doing), he was so unbelievably present,” Martin said. “The University has really lost someone influential (who) can’t be overlooked.”

According to Psychology Today, Peterson was one of the top 100 most-cited psychologists in the world.

Peterson graduated from the University of Colorado in 1976 with a doctorate emphasizing social psychology, personality psychology and animal learning. He went on to complete his post-doctoral training at UPenn from 1979 to 1981, and began work at the University in 1986.

This story was updated with more information at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday.