Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Just checking in ... for Garry Petersen

A couple of times since I launched Photo Potpourri, I've devoted a post to the passing of someone who's had a profound influence on my life. That's what today's post is about. I apologize in advance for the fact that the image therein -- one -- is not even close to the volume I normally include when I add a post to a blog that's supposed to be about photography, but I decided to proceed anyway.

Professionally, Gary Petersen was a self-described "simple economist," but in reality, besides being a heck of a good guy, he was a hard-working leader and driver of a team of economists and public policy consultants who toiled under the corporate umbrella known as William-Lynn-James Inc., a firm whose de facto headquarters was an office in Garry's home in Central Indiana.

I was employed by The Indianapolis Star when I met Garry in 1986, a very short time before WLJ was formed. Back then, he was one of the principals of Petersen and Leatherman Inc., an Indianapolis consulting firm. I was doing research and reporting for what would be my last significant story in a reporting role (after which I would begin a series of editing assignments at the newspaper). Petersen and Leatherman had conducted a feasibility study for the use of a sizable chunk of the abandoned Monon Railroad corridor in Central Indiana, so I contacted the firm to discuss the study's recommendations.

The report had recommended that communities along the corridor, including Indianapolis, Carmel and Westfield, develop the linear strip of land for recreational purposes -- specifically, paved walking, running and biking trails. Perhaps that might seem obvious today, but this was 30 years ago when recreational trails were a novelty in urban settings. Fast-forward to the present, and that's exactly what happened to the corridor: The Monon Trail currently extends from downtown Indy all the way to Westfield.

Garry and I had a few conversations while I developed the story in 1986, and for whatever reason, he was impressed with my work ethic, my diligence for accuracy ... and, most of all, the published story that evolved from my reporting.

After I moved to my editing assignments in June 1986, we stayed in touch frequently. For at least 15 years thereafter, he would hire me to do freelance editing work for WLJ (which would acquire Petersen and Leathermen a month after my story published) and for his non-profit side project, the Tax Research Analysis Center (TRAC), which availed itself to government entities to consult on all things related to tax policy and implementation.

In late summer of 1997, Garry was responsible for me acquiring the first computer I ever owned. He was upgrading the electronics in his office at the time, and I'm sure he was tiring of us having to exchange documents by fax. He wanted me to get into cyberspace, so he gave me -- free of charge -- one of the desktops being replaced, a low-RAM dial-up. Next to the PC I use now, that first computer would be considered a clunker, but I was ecstatic to get it back then. I'm sure my introduction to cyberspace would have been delayed a few years if it hadn't been for that.

Garry's work with TRAC and in government public policy for WLJ would often find him behind the scenes on scores of municipal issues and state projects. From our many conversations through the years, I deduced that the elected official he felt closest to and whom he most revered was former longtime Indianapolis Mayor William H. Hudnut. One moment in the Hudnut administration's realm in which I know Garry reveled was when Indy persuaded the NFL's Baltimore Colts to move to Indianapolis in 1984. Garry had spent many of his early years on the East Coast, and based on the collection of pre-Indy Colts memorabilia I saw in his home in Greenwood, I sensed he was a Colts fan before they ever moved to Indy.

On several occasions, Garry talked to me about a picture that was published in one of the Indianapolis daily newspapers showing Hudnut and several of the mayor's staffers joining Colts owner Robert Irsay on the field of the then-new Hoosier Dome shortly after the team arrived in Indy. Garry told me he was in the background of that photo but lamented that he never got a copy of the image. Because I worked at The Star, he asked me about 10 years ago or so if I could ask our librarians to see if they could find the image. I did ask our librarians for help, and they looked but to no avail. Because the 1984 photo was taken well before the era of digital photography in newspapers, the photo in The Star's archives would have been in print form, and in 2006 or thereabouts, finding old prints (assuming it was still in our archives) was never a certainty.

In a way, it was interesting that Garry would chase after a photo of himself at all. Although the walls in his office at the Franklin home were crammed with framed honors, awards and photos (a few that included him), he had no photos of himself anywhere among his photographs on Facebook, and none on a personal Internet page he created for himself and family. One page in particular at that Internet site was devoted to an extensive 33-day vacation he and his family took to Europe in 2008, and although the trip photo gallery is loaded with pictures of his wife and son, Terri and Erik, in the various countries, there are none of him. The photo you see of Garry and Terri leading off this post was taken in their Franklin home shortly after the new millennium, and it wasn't until 10 years later or thereabouts that it occurred to me how fortunate I was to have gotten them to pose for it at all.

Garry has held Colts season tickets from the team's first year in Indy. Periodically he would buy additional season seats to better accommodate clients and friends. Because of this, my two sons (both rabid Colts fans) have had season tickets (which they pay for) for the past nine seasons. I've attended a few Colts games through the years -- a few with Garry, and a couple with my sons -- but I've never purchased season tickets. Having grown up in Wisconsin, my primary pro football loyalty is to the Green Bay Packers. Two of the games Garry got me in to see were the last two times the Packers visited Indianapolis, and both times the Packers lost. (The Colts and Packers are in different NFL conferences, so they don't play each other during the regular season very often.)

Garry's "behind the scenes" role through the years went beyond confidential consultations with government officials. While I was still employed at The Star, Garry would occasionally call me at work to suggest what he thought would be a good news story. I would assess the tip and, depending on the import, either pass it to the appropriate beat reporter or give a reporter or editor's name and contact info to Garry to deal with directly. He rarely chose the latter; he said he'd come upon too many journalists who he felt lacked the chops to thoroughly report stories.

When I asked Garry many years ago about the William-Lynn-James company name, he explained that the names represented key people in his life. Today, many years after that conversation, I remember the source of two of the three names -- Lynn is the middle name of Terri, and James is the middle name of his father, Robert. I don't recall the source of "William." Perhaps it was the middle name of a great ancestor. I suppose, too, it could have been a nod to Hudnut. I really don't remember.

In the 1980s while living in Irvington, a neighborhood on the Eastside of Indianapolis, Garry founded and organized the annual Pleasant Run Run 5-mile run and 3-mile walk, an event still held the last Saturday in October in tandem with the Historic Irvington Halloween Festival. In the years that Garry organized the runs, the PRR was known for its colorful and collectible annual event posters, the work of artists at the Indy firm Serigraphics. Jeff Pate, one of those artists, handled a few of those posters. Garry continued operating the run for several years after moving from Irvington to Franklin in 1986, after which it was taken over by Tuxedo Brothers Event Managers. The race now goes by the name "Pleasant Run Vampire Run." 

What struck me most about Garry's involvement with the PRR was that he donated all proceeds to the Marion County Children's Guardian Home in Irvington. The home, founded in Irvington in 1898, sheltered and cared for homeless, abused and neglected children for more than a century before closing in 2010.

While in Irvington, Garry founded the Irvington Forestry Foundation, which is devoted to developing and promoting urban forestry. He was the foundation's only president. Through the years, he and the foundation received numerous citations for their accomplishments and efforts promoting urban forestry. In 1996, Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh named him a Sagamore of the Wabash, which for a long time was the highest honor a governor could bestow on a citizen for his or her service in Indiana.

Shortly after leaving Irvington for Franklin, Garry and Terri and their new next-door neighbors, Lilo and Vicco VonStralendorff, went to the city of Franklin to ask permission to develop the city's first arboretum on land adjacent to Province Park. The city granted the request on one important condition: the Petersens and VonStralendorffs would have to help maintain the arboretum for 25 years. The two couples agreed -- and kept their word. On April 9, 2011, 25 years after the arboretum was developed, the last trees were planted there.

In both Irvington and Franklin, Garry and Terri bought and restored historic residences, and in the three years they have lived in Greenwood, they invested a lot of time and money to upgrade and improve that property as well. One of the many projects was landscaping and gardening, and it was while he was in his backyard admiring one of the gardens he had developed that Garry drew his last breath in the late afternoon of Sept. 1.

A quick sidebar: I didn't learn about the death of Garry's father, a longtime FBI agent, in August 1996, until well after it happened. But at some point in the years after Robert Petersen died, Garry told me that he had written his father's obituary and described how difficult it was to do that while also dealing with grief. He said he thought his father's FBI career and on-the-job anecdotes would make good material for a book, and he asked me if I would be interested in helping him write it. I told him I would, but we never really got into specifics on how to develop it, or even what we would include. And I never got to hear any of the anecdotes.

In the past decade or so, Garry grappled with several medical issues (the most serious involving his heart). During every third conversation (or so it seemed, anyway) that we had in that period he would intimate his concern that his days were numbered. He recalled the experience with his father and said he didn't want to burden his family with the task of having to write his obituary while grieving. He let me know he would like me to write his obituary. I think he wanted me to get started right away, too. After one such conversation, in 2009, he sent me a copy of his professional resume so I would at least have the basic framework of his life's story at my fingertips. I didn't refer to that resume at all when I put together this post; to me, Garry's story is about much more than the projects he consulted on in the business world.

He must have mentioned our conversations about his obituary at least once to his family, because on the night of Sept. 1, when I got the call from Erik to tell me his father had died, Erik asked if I would help write Garry's obituary. I pulled out the 2009 resume and spent the next six hours or so constructing what I felt was a very credible framework for an obituary. I somehow managed to compartmentalize my own grief ... and got the job done. It was of epic length, but Garry had accomplished a lot, and I felt he was worth it. I was concerned, however, about critical stuff I did not know about in his career that occurred from 2009 to the present. When I sent Terri and Erik my draft, I suggested they consult Garry's WLJ colleagues for more current information and projects. I also encouraged them to add or subtract anything they wanted. I acknowledged that they may want to whack the heck out of it because I knew a newspaper would charge a lot of money to publish an obit of any length.

The Petersens did, indeed, whittle my draft down to a few paragraphs, and they also moved some stuff around. I certainly understood, and I didn't mind. It didn't occur to me until yesterday that I could use this space to give Garry the lengthy sendoff I felt he deserved -- without worrying about a newspaper wanting to charge me an arm and leg for it.

And so, dear readers who have stuck with me all this way, that is why you are you seeing me go on and on about Garry here. I didn't even get to say anything about those government projects he had a major hand in over the years, so I'll mention some of them briefly now -- the Hoosier Heartland Highway; the I-69 Intercontinental Highway connecting Canada, the United States and Mexico; the Blue Water Bridge spanning the St. Clair River between Canada and the United States; and the West Baden (Ind.) Spring Resort feasibility analysis.

People who spoke often to Garry through the years will certainly remember his greeting when he called you on the phone and/or left a voice mail message: "Hey (your name), it's Garry Petersen ... just checking in." Equally memorable was his two-word email sign-off: "Travel Safe."

If any of you are moved by Garry's story and would be interested in keeping alive his passion for urban forestry, you can mail donations to:

Irvington Forestry Foundation
c/o Terri Petersen
110 W. Main St., Apt. 268
Carmel, IN 46032

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