Willis Peterson, 1923 – 2020
Willis Peterson, Arizona nature and wildlife photographer and author, passed away Sunday, May 31, 2020 surrounded by family after a long struggle with illness.
Willis ‘Pete’ Peterson was born 1923 in St. Paul, Minnesota, a child of Swedish immigrant parents. He was raised by his single mother and aunt.
In 1930 they moved to Colorado Springs in search of a healthier climate for Pete’s asthma. There began Pete’s love for the American west as they struggled to survive throughout the Great Depression and WWII.
On his 14th birthday, Pete’s mother gave him a box camera, thinking it might provide a lucrative skill at some point. Pete’s mother moved them to Phoenix for a couple of years, where Pete attended Phoenix Union High School, learning about photography and layout design. In 1943 Pete moved permanently to Phoenix and found work as a civilian mechanic at Luke Air Force Base. When WWII was over and wanting more for his future, Pete enrolled at Phoenix College. Pete had a thirst for knowledge and devoured science, history and literature, He worked a combination of odd jobs and photography assignments to put himself through school. He began taking photos for the college’s newspaper Bear Tracks. An unexpected scholarship from the Phoenix Women’s Club enabled Pete to continue his education at Arizona State College (later ASU). There he got a job as the photographer for the school annual, Sahuaro, which paid his room and board through college.
In 1949, during his last year in college, Pete was offered a job as staff photographer for the Arizona Republic newspaper. During his years on the Republic he photographed everything from local events to coverage of four presidents. He also wrote for the Republic’s Days and Ways weekly.
Pete met the love of his life, Roberta Trimble, at a community square dance; they were married in 1953. Together they worked to build Pete’s photography/writing career.
While still working at the Republic, Pete began freelancing. He submitted articles on natural history and wildlife, accompanied by his photographs to Arizona Highways. His first big break came when he was asked by National Geographic to do a story on beavers in their habitat.
In 1965, the chancellor of the new junior college system in Maricopa County, Dr. John Prince, asked Pete if he would be interested in developing the photography curriculum at the fledgling Glendale Community College.
Pete jumped at the chance for a new challenge. He left the Arizona Republic, returned to ASU to get a Master of Arts degree in Audio-Visual Technology (Photography as a degree major did not yet exist). Pete became faculty member of Glendale CC in 1968 and began fulfilling Dr. John Prince’s vision. He received the “Arizona Journalism Teacher of the Year” for junior colleges and inspired countless students to follow his footsteps.
Throughout the years Pete wrote articles and took photos for several more publications such as Audubon, Sierra Club, Reader’s Digest. He made short films, had a television show “Western Wildlife” on KAET and published many articles and books about wildlife and nature. His photography was exhibited in museums and art centers, including American Museum of Natural History NYC, Boston Museum of Science, Wildlife Experience Museum in CO, Colorado Springs Art Center, Scottsdale Center for the Arts, the Heard Museum, West Valley Art Museum and more. Pete’s work and love of adventure took him around the country and the world in search of the next story – Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Baja California, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Sri Lanka, India, Europe and several east African countries.
On retirement, the Petersons moved to Yavapai County, living first in Sedona, then Clarkdale. In 2013, Pete donated funding to create the Willis Peterson Photographic Award Scholarship at Prescott College. This scholarship is for photography students that focus on nature and the environment.
In 2019, Pete contacted Arizona Highways to donate old photos of his 1953 trip down Glen Canyon. This resulted in Pete’s last article of his life, which will appear in the August 2020 issue of Arizona Highways. Sadly, he was not able to see the final layout of his final article.
Willis Peterson is survived by Roberta, his wife of 67 years, his children Cynthia, Eric and Lars; grandchildren Dani, Samantha Tyler, Brett, step grandsons Adam and Joshua, and great-grandson John. Pete was 96 years of age.
A celebration of life will be held at a later date. Condolences and Hugs From Home may be expressed at www.whitneymurphyfuneralhome.com