*Note: Dr. Chris Peterson was a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and one of the founders of the field. In addition to being a beloved teacher, he was also one of the 100 most cited psychologists in the world. He passed away in October of 2012. His birthday was today.
I loved the way Chris’ voice rumbled in the back of his throat like an oncoming train. I loved the way he would look up and to the left and say ‘um’ at the end of every phrase, as if searching for the perfect way to convey his thought. And I loved the way he would lean back against the chalkboard, rest his hands on his stomach and consider every question from a student as if it was a brilliant one.
He was a moral compass as a teacher without being judgmental. Which is quite remarkable, really.
I have two particularly fond memories of Chris.
At the end of our MAPP year, we wanted to give a meaningful gift to our instructors. So, Angie LeVann (a brilliant photographer) took a photo of each student or group of students embodying one of their VIA signature strengths so that we had all 24 strengths represented. The creativity of each student came out in the setting for the photos and a little ingenuity came out as well so that we took the photos when the teachers weren’t looking. Then Louisa Jewell put them all together in poster format and we presented the framed photos/poster at the end of our last class to each teacher.
Chris was truly touched at the gesture…and then he made a crack about how amazing it was we were able to organize ourselves. He asked for a full sized version to hang in his office at the University of Michigan. It was a proud moment to be able to thank him for something he had devoted so much of his scholarship to create.
Another memory is at the end of the IPPA First World Congress in Philly when a group of us were hanging out. Someone mentioned the little positivity ditty I wrote for my MAPP class and asked me to get up and sing it. I demurred. The thought of singing in front of some of positive psychology’s luminaries was more than a bit mortifying. Then Suzie Pileggi pulled up a video of the song and proceeded to play it. I don’t quite remember, but I think Chris laughed at the humor in it.
I wasn’t sure if he was making a request or making conversation, but in that moment I felt numerous emotions. In an instant, I was relieved from my embarrassment, surprised and honored to be ‘seen’ and disappointed that I didn’t actually know any Smokey Robinson. I would have sung ’99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall’ if Chris Peterson specifically asked me to. He spoke for a few minutes about Smokey’s songs and then said, “You really should look him up.” It wasn’t an admonition. It was more like a kind piece of advice from one music lover to another.
Like a dutiful student I promptly put, “Smokey Robinson” on my TO DO list…and then it fell to the bottom (and fell off) as competing priorities took over.
The morning after I found about his passing, I thought, “How can we do some good in the world…to honor his memory?” Because of the person Chris was, I wasn’t the only student to have that thought, or the only student to think that a scholarship in his honor would be one fitting way to celebrate a professor so generous to others that his colleagues called him ‘Mother Theresa’. (I would daresay there are few people who could even earn a nickname like that.) So a group of students have started that endeavor. If you would like to contribute you can go to: http://mappalum.org/Donation and mention Chris in the “in Honor of” section.
I looked up some Smokey Robinson recently. I wish I’d done it sooner.