Chase Peterson's new book, The Guardian Poplar: A Memoir of Deep Roots, Journey, and Rediscovery was honored at a launch party at the University of Utah Press on May 9. Now in his mid-80s, Peterson stood at the podium for over an hour and held court in a room packed with academic friends and colleagues. His comedic timing could easily earn him a spot on Letterman or the Tonight Show. He entertained questions from the audience and was given a standing ovation. Few heard him as he turned to his wife and said, "Grethe, this is fun! We should write another book!"
At the mention of an autobiography of an M.D. turned Dean of Admissions at Harvard and President at the University of Utah, does your first thought include words like dull, dry, self-promoting? Well think again. This book could be all those things, but fortunately for readers it is not. It is refreshingly candid, honest, warm and funny.
Peterson has defined this book as a memoir rather than an autobiography, so "it could be whatever you want it to be." He recounts his youth on the campus of Utah State University where his father was president for 29 years. He shares funny stories of a five year old's adventures in the world of academics... and painting --not art -- house painting. Curiosity caused him to investigate the paint cans left a the President's home after painters had repainted the exterior white. When they returned the next day to paint the trim a fine red, it seems Peterson had beat them to it. A line of bright red paint about three feet off the ground surrounded the house.
He shares a hilarious family story that happened while the Petersons lived in Boston. I won't tell you the fairly graphic curse six year old son Stuart said to his mother in a fit of pique. But I laughed out loud. Of this incident Peterson recounts, "The family was none the worse for having heard the cruelest indictment [Stuart] could think of, and we have never let him forget it." It is priceless.
Peterson was the face at Harvard when pressured to institute quotas for admitting black students to the university. (He refused) Years later he faced the media during the 112 days Barney Clark lived with the Jarvik-7 artificial heart in the University Hospital. And in 1989, Peterson was again the face of the University during the media storm that announced Fleischman and Pon's cold fusion experiment. Peterson's inside view of these three events is ground-breaking and fascinating.
In later years Peterson was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, but has outlived the death sentence of that diagnosis by more than 15 years, continues to thrive, and lecture at the U's Medical School.
The title of the book is based on an engraving by Birger Sandzen titled Guardian Poplar that he gave to the Peterson family during their time at Utah State. Poplar trees are favored in Utah and elsewhere as wind breaks because they have large, strong root sytems. I've recently read that poplar wood is frequently used as the core for snowboards because of its flexibility. Peterson writes that Sandzen's engraving symbolizes the impact his heritage, and particularly his parents, have had on his well-lived life. But the parallels in Peterson's own life will be obvious.
An Appreciation in the book says it best: "Chase has managed to be self-aware without becoming self-absorbed, to take the reader along on his journey of rediscovery without preaching, whining or boasting... To be given a passenger seat as Chase retraces his life journey creates an extraordinary voyage for the reader." Enjoy.