Once upon a time there was a little boy; a little boy who would grow up to become a doctor. But he didn’t know that when he was a little boy. In fact, he didn’t know that until he was 23 years old.
“…It was a day of decision that autumn afternoon in 1957 when I walked into Dr. Jolley’s office. I had been majoring in civil engineering during my two years of college before my mission and also that Spring quarter at BYU after my return from Uruguay in March. Because it would have taken me longer to get my degree in the Y’s 5-year engineering program, I was back at the University of Idaho where I had started as a freshman in 1952.
“I had been thinking a lot about medicine versus engineering—and decided it would be helpful to talk it over with the pre-med advisor. So there I was.
“Within two hours I was all transferred out of my engineering classes into pre-med courses.
“I knew my Mom really wanted me to go into medicine. And even though I wanted to go into medicine, too, I was afraid of it. Afraid that I wasn’t smart enough to make it.”
With the change to pre-med Walt remembered his happy thoughts after that college freshman chemistry class: ‘That’s the last chem class I’ll ever have to take!” Well, for pre-med there was quantitative and qualitative chemical analysis, and much more to come.
Even with these difficult classes he didn’t realize at the time that six years later on June 10, 1963, the day he would receive his M.D. degree he would say: “Now I know that I could never be happy in anything but medicine. I would have been happy as an engineer never having known medicine—but now I know medicine is the right choice for me. ”
It appears we’ve started in the middle of our story…so let’s go back to the beginning.
Walt, son of Raymond O. and Jane Maria Prescott Petersen, was born April 17, 1934, in Wendell, Idaho, delivered at home by Dr. Simonton. He has two older sisters, Bonnie Degler who passed away March 1960 at age 60 of colon cancer. Phyllis, who lives in Wendell with her husband Dale Bunn. Walt’s younger brother, Dale, is a retired civil engineer and lives in Twin Falls with his wife Connie Phillips who grew up in Rupert.
When Walt graduated from Wendell High School in 1952 he received the American Legion Award for outstanding senior boy, the Beryl Passmore trophy and Babe Ruth sportsmanship trophy for outstanding athlete, and was chosen for the all-state Idaho basketball team. He was student body president and captain of the football and basketball teams.
Those who know Walt can hear him saying: “You know Wendell is a really small high school– we only had 42 in our graduating class.”
Walt attended the University of Idaho, playing freshman basketball, then played basketball his sophomore year for Boise Jr. College. Even though he worked two part-time jobs that year, he graduated with the highest scholastic standing in the class.
The age for serving missions then was 20, so from 1954 to 1957 he served a 2 ½ year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Uruguay and Paraguay, South America. To learn Spanish, he would get up thirty minutes earlier each morning before the allotted time and study the language. While there he was a counselor in the mission presidency (same as Assistant to the President now) and when the Apostle Henry D. Moyle toured their mission, Walt helped interpret for him at church and government functions in Paraguay.
He then attended a quarter at BYU, but returned to the University of Idaho where he could finish his engineering degree sooner. However, he changed to another major he had been considering and in 1959 graduated in pre-med. After four grueling years at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, his goal of M.D. was bestowed on June 10, 1963.
After his freshman year of medical school, he had returned home to Wendell for the summer to work with his carpenter father. He started dating a home town girl, Eileen Albertson, and they were pinned before he went back to St. Louis in the fall. Eileen had been working for the administrator of the State Tuberculosis Hospital in Gooding that summer, then went back to BYU. They were engaged at Christmastime when they were both home on a break, and married June 14, 1961, in the LDS Salt Lake Temple. Eileen worked as a secretary for the Hematologist at the Jewish Hospital which was near the medical school…and got what was called a “PHT” = putting hubby through.
Dr. Petersen interned at the Minneapolis General Hospital, Minnesota, and served two years at the U.S. Public Health Indian Hospital in Talihina, Oklahoma.
Quoting from a 1982 article in the South Idaho Press: “Then came a break for which he was ‘in the right place at the right time.’ Dr. Petersen learned that Dr. Dean Mahoney, who had been a family physician in Burley for a number of years, was moving to Salt Lake City and needed someone to take over his practice.” It was a pleasure to return back home to South Central Idaho in 1966.
(As I, his wife Eileen, write this, I can tell you Walt is not going to be happy with me for putting in all these neat things I know about him for this Library Legacy Project before we leave for El Salvador in a few days. However, as a member of this Legacy Project committee, I need to submit this before we leave. The subject I know best is about my eternal sweetheart to whom I have been happily married for 50 years as of June 14, 2011. We thank all who were able to come to our Anniversary Open House on June 17, and for the beautiful cards sent and given to us, plus many personal greetings. We also thank our children and their spouses for putting on this grand celebration for us.)
Some of his church activities in the United States have included teacher, Stake Young Men Presidency in St. Louis, first Presiding Elder of the Choctaw Dependent Branch in Talihina, Oklahoma, and in Burley—home teacher, Elders Quorum president, bishop, high councilor, counselor in stake presidency, stake president, patriarch—Spanish and English; and a temple worker in the Guatemala, Boise, Argentina, and Twin Falls Temples (called as a sealer for this latter temple in September 2010).
Out of the United States, he has served three missions with his wife, first as a mission president in the Mexico Merida Mission—the Yucatan Peninsula 1995-1998; next as a medical advisor for 12 missions/2000 missionaries in the Central America Area–Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama–living in Guatemala City March 2005 to February 2007; and as a medical advisor for 14 missions/2300 missionaries in the South America South Area—Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay September 2008 to March 2010, living in Buenos Aires.
On April 19, 2011, he was called as the temple president of the new San Salvador El Salvador Temple, with the dedication date of August 21, 2011. This call is a total surprise to us! And I say: “Wherever Walt is, that is home for me.” It officially begins July 20, 2011, and is a 3-year call.
Walt has also been active in civic and medical organizations. He has been president of the Idaho Academy of Family Physicians; delegate for the Idaho Medical Association, and Burley High School team physician (gratis) for 29 years, beginning in 1967. While chief of staff of Cassia Memorial Hospital, he enjoyed working with another Wendellite, Dr. Eugene Holsinger. Walt delivered over 3,500 babies during his 1966-2005 medical practice in Burley. He was elected to the Burley City Council for six years, and served on the Cassia hospital board for six years. He was also a PTO president for the Mountain View Middle School. He was chosen one of the Burley Businessmen of the Year in 1991; as the Idaho Family Physician of the Year in 1994; given the Wyeth-Ayerst “Physician’s Award for Community Service – Idaho” in 1995; and the Magic Valley President’s Award by the Fourth District Coaches Association in 2000 “In recognition of your many years of service to our youth and community.”
He has been asked to give many speeches from Burley to Boise to Idaho Falls for medical, civic, school, and church groups on various subjects such as stress, marriage, morality, physical health, nutrition, leadership, sportsmanship, and other topics. He has counseled all ages in both his medical practice and his church callings. He was the Burley High School graduation speaker in 1972 and 1986.
One of Walt’s dreams as a young boy was to someday learn to fly an airplane. He took flying lessons at the Burley Airport in 1967 and has logged many hours flying. He has been partners in various airplanes—first with Dr. Richard Sutton and Dr. Hayden Ellingham, then with Newel Nelson and Dr. Leo Brown, then with Mike Wheeler. He has flown his family to medical meetings in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. The longest flight was made to Guadalajara, Mexico from Burley, Idaho in a two-engine Aztec. Mostly, he loved to fly his family in their Cessna 206 to the Flying ‘B’ Ranch in Idaho’s wilderness area and share his love for the out-of-doors with them. And a couple of times he flew them to Disneyland in California.
Walt looked forward to each son turning 13 and each daughter becoming an adventurer in the Young Women camp program and going on a whitewater trip with each one down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and the Salmon River. He also enjoys water and snow skiing (even after breaking his hand at Sun Valley and being in a cast for several months in 1989, he hasn’t given up skiing yet). He played basketball in the early mornings with his children, then as they grew up and left for college and married, he still played with the 30-something friends until he was age 70 and ruptured a disc one morning on the basketball court. That finally ended his being a participator in the sport he loves best.
Most of all he cherishes his wife and family. As mentioned, Walt married Eileen Albertson, a 1957 Wendell High School graduate, June 14, 1961 in the Salt Lake Temple. They have 7 children, all Burley High School graduates in the following years: Mary Jane “Janie” 1981; Gary 1983; Steve 1985; David 1988; Julie “The Fabulous” 1989; Brian 1991; Jennifer “Jen” 1992. They are each Brigham Young University graduates, and the four sons all have advanced degrees. [Julie jokingly added her title as she proof read this for us on July 19, 2011.]
We have 32 grandchildren, whom we adore, and who return our love in great abundance.
By families they are:
Rexburg, Idaho: Janie & Shawn Fisher – Aimee (just married Michael Mecham 25 June 2011),
Daniel, Katie, Heidi, Samuel, Ashley, Michael
Saratoga Springs, Utah: Gary & Kathy (Anderson) – McKell, Abbey, Jacob, Isaac
Saratoga Springs, Utah: Steve & Natalie (Smith) – Kelsey, Cortney, Kimble, Carter
Draper, Utah: David & Julie (Black) – Joshua, Anna, Samuel, William
Saratoga Springs, Utah: Julie & John Peterson – Jacee, Jackson, Maddie, and John’s Mikayla
Evanston, Wyoming, moving to McMinnville, Tennessee August 2011: Brian & Michelle
(Swan) – Emma, Taylor Eileen, Avery, Elizabeth
Rochester, Minnesota: Jen & Jerry Brewer – Seth, Sarah, Ben, Joshua, Elizabeth
Walt is thankful for missionaries who brought the Gospel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to his ancestors in England and Denmark who then came to America so he has both the blessings of living in the United States and knowing “families can be together forever.”
An article about him in the South Idaho Press in 1982 said: “Although Walt Petersen is known by many names—son, brother, husband, father, doctor, pilot, bishop, president—the name he likes best is ‘friend.’ He is truly a friend to all who know him.”
At the end of that same article Walt is quoted, saying: “We are really happy that we decided to move to Burley. It has been good to us.”
And now I’ll have to write my story and our children’s stories later as we’re getting on a plane in three days to fly to San Salvador, El Salvador, where we will be for three years.
…and they are living happily ever after.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have and haven’t had problems, worries, and heartaches. However, we work through each one and choose to share the happy ones in this life sketch. Without repentance made possible because of the Atonement of the Savior, we’d all be sunk, wouldn’t we? I admit I’m prejudice, but Walt Petersen is the most Christ-like person I know.
Submitted by Eileen A. Petersen – finished typing July 17, 2011
P.S. Update added August 2012: We are thankful for our 7 children, their spouses, and
our 32 grandchildren, with #33 grandchild due Nov. 2011.
We are thankful for Julie & John taking care of Eileen’s 92-year-old widowed mother, Verna Beth Huffaker Albertson, while we are gone these three years to San Salvador, El Salvador.
Walt was flown to Salt Lake City to have back surgery for a ruptured disc on May 1, 2012. We returned to San Salvador June 7, 2012, and we have resumed our service at the San Salvador El Salvador Temple for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We are thankful for all the love, concern, prayers, and words of encouragement for his recovery.