Dr. Melbert Peterson

Remembrances at Mel's Funeral
 August 13, 2011

Dave Renneke

Dr. Melbert Peterson
Taken on April 6, 2001


Along with many of you, I have had the pleasure of being inspired by the example of Mel Peterson, especially in his role as teacher.  I would like to relate to you some of the excitement he generated on campus on a few occasions.

In 1989, this soft-spoken organic chemist and newly appointed Director of the John Deere Planetarium, seized on a golden opportunity to bring the public to the campus for a one-time event.  Starting at about 11:00 pm on August 25, 1989 (a beautiful summer evening), the NASA spacecraft Voyager 2 made a flyby of Neptune.  We at Augustana were ready and excited to do an all-nighter and wait for the first close-up pictures of this blue planet.

To prepare for this event, Mel arranged to borrow a large 10 foot dish antenna, set it up on the sidewalk west of the planetarium building, and pointed it at the satellite that was to relay the images from Voyager 2.   Since this preceded the invention of the video projector, several large screen TVs were set up - four in the lecture hall and one outside on the steps, all wired to the antenna.  Mel was great at talking to the right people, encouraging them to come and give freely of their time, and then making sure everything ran smoothly.  I was involved with helping people view Neptune directly through the telescope in the observatory.

The stage was set and Voyager 2 did not disappoint us.  Hundreds of people watched as the pictures arrived. We listened intently to the comments from space scientists giving their interpretations.  Many of us stayed up all night.  I was around when Mel closed up at about 7:00 am.  That historic event was cool!

Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was a comet that broke apart because of the tidal forces of Jupiter and then, piece by piece, on a subsequent return it collided with Jupiter in July 1994.

And again, Mel opened the doors of the observatory, planetarium and lecture hall - this time for seven evenings in a row.  The weather was variable that week but often we caught glimpses of the new, transient dark spots on Jupiter using our 14" telescope.

This was at the dawn of the Internet.  The lecture hall had a new computer and a new ceiling video projector so we downloaded pictures during the afternoon (it was a slow process in those days) and projected them in the evening.  Many people returned every night to see the new pictures.  It was exhausting but exhilarating!

Two more spectacular comets made their appearance during Mel's watch as Director -- Comet Hyakutake and Comet Hale-Bopp.  Naturally our doors were open for both events.

In March, 1996 Comet Hyakutake was viewed by over 900 visitors in a one week span.  Never one to miss an astronomy opportunity, on Saturday of that particular week, five of us traveled to the Adler Planetarium in Chicago for a public lecture by David Levy.

After the show, Mel asked me - what do you think about introducing ourselves and asking David about coming to give a lecture at Augustana?  I said, sure, why not.  Well, Mel asked him, and he said, yes, I would be happy to!  David Levy actually came to campus on two occasions, giving comet lectures in Centennial Hall.  His second visit was longer and included meeting with students and an interview with Don Wooten for his Saturday morning program on WVIK.  Mel was always looking for additional opportunities to "spread the word".

These are only a few of my recollections of my long association with the life and work of one of Augustana's most well-known professors.  He has touched the lives of many of us.  We will miss Mel but he will live on in our memories.