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
Willis Peterson was my teaching mentor and inspiration when I was hired to teach a photography class as an adjunct faculty member in the fall of 1981 at Glendale Community College. He was a brilliant photographer with a passion and respect for the natural world. Willis was an inspirational and skillful teacher. I am very grateful to have known him. My best to his family. Respectfully, Professor Darilyn Rowan
DEAR ROBERTA, CINDY, ERIC & LARS:
PLEASE ACCEPT MY SYMPATHY WITH YOU ON THE PASSING OF OF WILLIS!
PETE WAS A GREAT INSPIRATION TO HIS STUDENTS (INCLUDING ME) AND ANYONE INTERESTED IN PHOTOGRAPHY, ESPECIALLY WILDLIFE. PETE WAS ONE OF OUR MOST INFLUENTIAL INSTRUCTORS AT GLENDALE C.C. ALL OF OUR ART FACULTY WERE PROUD OF HIS LEADERSHIP AS A FELLOW MEMBER IN OUR DEPARTMENT.
Please accept condolences from the entire Prescott College community, particularly from the many artists, naturalists and photographers who have benefited from the Willis Peterson Photographic Award Scholarship. Mr. Peterson’s vision will live on through them. We are all eagerly awaiting the Arizona Highways feature: a trip down Glen Canyon on the the Fifties would have been heaven for most of the folks associated with the College.
In the fullness of time we hope that a family member will contact us to facilitate the continued issuance of the Peterson Scholarship
I was hunting Pete’s name and info for something else when I found this. I met him and Roberta when I was pretty young and they would be at her sister’s house in Renton, Wa on Vislts. My dad Harold was dating her sister at the time. I loved and treasure hearing his stories about his photography trips. A great influence on my life as I have always had an interest in photography that he helped start.
Pete was an inspirational and formative teacher for me while studying art and photography at Glendale College in the early 70’s. He was always encouraging and actually purchased one of my early paintings while attending Glendale College. Such a thrill it was for me at the time! He was a master photographer and I remember taking his criticism seriously. He was, at times, a man of few words with his photographic criticism but that look in his eyes when he was impressed with your work was always enough.
I met Willis in about 1982 via the cover of Arizona Highways. I was taking oil painting classes, wanted a subject other than class subjects and chose the lovely meadow picture on the Arizona Highway by Wilis. i really did not care who the photographer was, just love the photo, a good subject to paint. Like pictures with depth. So sorry now, I didn’t contact him when I got his address in 1984 about this painting. I see now I would have enjoyed very much to have met Willis and his Family. My God/Jesus be blessing you with their peace and joy. Josephine Lint