David A. Peterson dies at 75; directed USC school of gerontology

David A. Peterson, a pioneer in the field of gerontology education and a longtime professor and director of USC's Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, has died. He was 75.

Peterson died Oct. 4 of advanced Parkinson's disease at a nursing facility in Alhambra where he had lived in recent years as his illness progressed, said his wife, Ellen.

An expert on adult education and learning throughout the life span, Peterson served as director of the gerontology school from 1978 to 2003. As the administrator responsible for the school's instructional programs, he guided development of its degree programs, including its doctorate in gerontology, the nation's first.

Nationally, Peterson helped create guidelines and standards for the field through his work with professional organizations and served as consultant to dozens of U.S. colleges and universities as they researched and launched their own programs in gerontology, the study of aging.

"It's a great loss to gerontology because he played such an important part in developing the knowledge base in the field," said Edward Schneider, former dean of the Davis School and USC's Andrus Gerontology Center, who worked closely with Peterson for 18 years. "He constantly promoted the importance of gerontological education and was probably the premier leader in the country in that regard."

Peterson's own teaching and scholarship focused both on the education of older adults and on the academic programs in gerontology that trained those who would later work with and on behalf of older people.

At USC, he also negotiated successfully with leaders of other departments and schools to bring about the creation of a number of dual-degree programs — combining gerontology studies with those of law, health administration and social work, among others — for students whose careers would involve working with older adults.

"You want a dentist to understand aging teeth and social workers to understand the needs of the older people they work with," said Pauline Abbott, director emerita of Cal State Fullerton's Institute of Gerontology and a former colleague and student of Peterson's at USC. "David really understood that the study of aging belongs everywhere because sooner or later it will touch everyone, like a ripple effect going into the different disciplines."

Peterson had served terms as president of both the Assn. for Gerontology in Higher Education, a national professional organization, and the California Council on Gerontology and Geriatrics. Both groups have established awards in his name.

His interest in aging as a field of study was inspired in part by his own family, his wife said. His maternal grandmother lived with the family from the time Peterson was a child and the two were close, contributing to his understanding of the importance of family ties and continued learning as aspects of healthful aging.

The son of two elementary school teachers, Peterson was born in Vicksburg, Mich., on July 26, 1937. He received his bachelor's degree in history from Albion College in 1959, his master's in the teaching of social science from Western Michigan University in 1964 and his doctorate in adult education from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1969.

Before arriving at USC in 1978, he was director of the gerontology program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He had also taught at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Known among his colleagues for his ability to build consensus and for his dry wit, Peterson had conquered shyness to become an effective academic and leader. "Because he believed so much in the field and its importance, he was able to overcome that shyness, and speak and lead," Ellen Peterson said.

In addition to his wife, of Pasadena, Peterson's survivors include his brother Carl Peterson, of Fenton, Mich.; his daughter, Kim Nason, of Mission Viejo, his son, Scott David Peterson, of South Pasadena; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Oct. 27 at the First United Methodist Church, 500 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.


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