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Mel Peterson: "official star-gazer" of the Quad Cities

July  27, 2011

(Editor's note: Laura Rickey, niece of the late Dr. Mel Peterson, shared this tribute about him written by her father, Ron Peterson.)

Mel Peterson became my brother-in-law when I married his sister, Eilene, in 1963; however, he seemed more like a brother to me. While many of his friends and relatives knew him for his more famous exploits — a chemistry and astronomy professor at Augustana College in Rock Island; director of the college's John Deere Planetarium; and a very dedicated member of Kiwanis — I would like to tell you a few things about him most people may not know.

His younger brother, known as Bill, had the same first name as I have (Ronald) and was the same age. Bill served many years in the U.S. Navy, retiring as Master Chief Petty Officer. When Mel was working on his master's degree at the University of Illinois his father died and he took a period of time off to look after his mother and sister.

Mel became a close friend of the late Dr. Fritiof Fryxell, geology professor at Augie. In Dr. Fryxell's later years, Mel would drive him out west to the national parks. He was privileged to be with Dr. Fryxell when he had a mountain peak named after him at the Grand Tetons. While a student working on his doctor's degree at Oklahoma State, he met the girl who was destined to become his wife, Elizabeth (Betty) Jennings. She later moved to Moline and worked several years at the Rock Island Arsenal, using her chemistry background. Also, while at Oklahoma State, Mel became interested in Western art, and became a collector of paintings and small statues.

Mel and Betty were active members of the Blackhawk Hiking Club, and hiked all over the United States. He often took groups to the Grand Canyon for hikes and rapids river trips. Mel was also a bird watcher, and eagle counter in the dead of winter. They enjoyed seeing several species of birds during their travels to different states and countries. He especially liked to show and tell his daughter, Kerstin, her husband, Jeff and grandchildren Kai and Ana, everything about nature and the marvels of the universe.

Mel was very caught up with NASA and space travel. In fact, he built three different models of the space station, with one of them being displayed at the Putnam Museum in Davenport. With his background in science and astronomy, Mel made it clear to me that this was all the proof he needed that there is a Divine Creator.

Mel and Betty helped organize the campus church at Augie. The church had retreats at the Andover Retreat Center and started having a Christmas service at the then non-heated Jenny Lind Chapel in Andover. This evolved into what is now the 43rd year of the Joy of Christmas Service held by Augustana College Campus Ministry and Augustana Lutheran Church in Andover.

Mel enjoyed doing extremely large jigsaw puzzles, and one time had the honor of putting the last piece in one of them at Augie (it even made the newspapers). Moline, the city he lived in most of his life, meant a lot to him — he could often be found at one of their famous sites: Lagomarcino's, Whitey's, Hastey Tasty or Village Inn!

Mel touched many lives and always enjoyed visiting with whomever he was with. He will always be remembered as the "official star-gazer" of the Quad Cities!