Walter R. Peterson, 1922-2011

This is a column I never wanted to write. It notes the passing of New Hampshire’s “First Citizen,” former Gov. Walter R. Peterson, who died after a battle with cancer on June 1.
Much has been written about the inherent decency of Governor Peterson, his service to New Hampshire, both in public office and as a businessman, college president, board member and leader, all of which is richly deserved.New Hampshire leaders from left, center and right have noted his contributions over a lifetime. Peterson served in the New Hampshire House, ending his service with two terms as speaker. In 1968, he ran for the Republican nomination for governor, received the nomination and defeated Democrat Emile Bussiere. Upon assuming office, Peterson named a “Task Force on Government Organization” which examined every aspect of New Hampshire state government and attracted hundreds of New Hampshire citizens to serve on its various committees and subcommittees – including me, as a UNH senior.The resulting report made modernizing improvements to state government and, notably, recommended replacing a variety of antiquated business taxes with the business profits tax, which Peterson successfully led the effort to enact.In 1972, Peterson was defeated in the Republican primary for governor by Meldrim Thomson, who had run several times before. Interestingly, Thomson won that election with fewer votes than he had lost to Peterson by two years before, the election being held the day after Labor Day and Peterson’s renomination deemed to be “a sure thing.” Whatever his private feelings, Peterson expressed no bitterness and moved on to other things.Rather than retire from public life, Peterson returned to business and shortly thereafter assumed the presidency of Franklin Pierce College (now Franklin Pierce University) where he served for over 20 years, preserving the school and strengthening it.Later, Peterson served as acting president of the University of New Hampshire, longtime board member of the University System of New Hampshire, acting head of the Community College System of New Hampshire, where he arranged for transferability of credits between it and other institutions, chair of the board of Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, and many, many other positions.The beauty and key to Walter Peterson’s leadership was that he believed that he was “governor of all the people, not just Republicans” and, “I do not believe any political party has a monopoly on good ideas.”As the Republican Party moved to the right, Peterson often chose to endorse Democrats, including Democratic Governor John Lynch.Peterson was a Republican when Republicans could be progressive, creative and interested in making government work, and not be considered the enemy.Peterson’s ability to identify talent in others started the careers of many. Warren B. Rudman, named Attorney General in 1970 by Peterson, started the string of attorneys general in that office, including David Souter, Tom Rath and Greg Smith. He also involved Kimon Zachos, David Nixon and Lou D’Allesandro in important positions, among many others.In 1968, I was president of the Young Republicans at UNH when Peterson was running for governor. He was unfailingly kind to the students who helped him, remembered them by name and was sure to thank them each time they got together. It was a thrill for the Young Republicans to see Peterson elected.In 1969, when serving as a student leader at UNH, a number of students and I went to Concord to lobby for more funding for the university system (then, as now, a challenge). We met with Peterson, and he knew each student, recounted the background of one from Nashua whose family he knew well, and remembered the political efforts from the year before.Finally, at a football game a weekend before the 1972 election, after Peterson had been defeated for renomination, the late Richard Morse, chair of the board of trustees of the university system and managing partner at Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, offered me a job in the law firm at the football game. He waited until the third period to do it!When I expressed acceptance, Peterson, who was sitting in the row behind us, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t you want to know what you’re going to make?”Throughout his life, Walter Peterson was a friend to everyone he met – warm, gracious and interested.In the loss of Walter R. Peterson, New Hampshire truly has lost its “First Citizen.” Hopefully, his example will live on and be a guide to those in office today.Brad Cook is a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.