Shoreview author chronicles shy yet curious life


"An Introvert Learns to Fly" by Ronald Peterson

Ronald Peterson

Grandpa Camp with Peterson’s grandchildren has included everything from lessons on quantum mechanics to dissecting fetal pigs. Photo courtesy of Ronald Peterson

As a part of his experimental life, Peterson helped his then high school-aged daughter and friends build an 800-pound submarine that was deployed in 1996 in Shoreview’s Turtle Lake. Photo courtesy of Ronald Peterson

It can be easy to miss interesting life stories that sit in plain view — those of neighbors, fellow churchgoers and other folks in the community.

Take Ronald Peterson, 73, who was born and raised on St. Paul’s East Side and has lived in the same Shoreview home with his wife, Miriam, since 1978. The two are longtime members of Galilee Lutheran Church in Roseville, and Peterson is a co-founder of the community-oriented Rice Street Gardens in Maplewood.

He also roomed with a Nobel Prize-winner-to-be, built a research refrigerator that he chilled down to 459.665 degrees below zero, did research on solar energy that was applied to satellites and went on to lead 2,000 employees as an executive at Honeywell.

“I’ve just had a really, really interesting life,” says Peterson while promoting his first published book, “An Introvert Learns to Fly: A Memoir of Timidity, Panic, Science, Leadership and Love.”

He says his shyness is one of two driving forces in his life — he notes he’s been worrying about the newspaper interview all morning — saying the other driving force was something instilled in him by his parents, an approach to life of complete experiment.

“I decided early on that I could choose what I wanted to be,” he says.

 

East Side to Caltech

Raised in a home at Case Avenue and Burr Street in St. Paul that he once filled with hydrogen sulfide gas — a chemistry teacher had sold him a cache of chemicals, three cents a bottle — Peterson says his parents gave him a long leash. During another experiment fiery phosphorus burned two-inch holes in a friend’s hallway rug.

“My parents let me do this stuff partly because they didn’t know what I was doing,” he says, though they were always supportive. “When I’d say I was going to build a giant telescope, they’d say, ‘Good, what do you need?’”

By 14 he’d built two large telescopes and went on to attend St. Paul’s Johnson High School. He says in the book that he applied to only three colleges, The University of Minnesota, Hamline University and the California Institute of Technology — apparently one other student from Johnson had gotten into Caltech before.

“I was a good student in high school but the idea of going there was absurd,” he says, though he was accepted to Caltech and graduated from it in 1967, financial help making it all possible. His parents only had to pay to get him out to Pasadena. 

From there it was off to the University of Illinois, where he earned his Ph.D. in physics and built that aforementioned refrigerator.

It was his senior-year roommate at Caltech, Doug Osheroff, who went on to win a Nobel Prize for similar ultra-cold research.

Peterson jokes, “I still claim if I had a better refrigerator ...”

 

Pictures to page

Though “An Introvert Learns to Fly” was published July 1 and is Peterson’s first book to hit the market, it’s not the first one he ever wrote.

A decade ago, he penned a science fiction novel set in the future, about the next 100 years. “I need to publish that because everything keeps coming true,” he says of his prescient work.

“Writing is a wonderful way to live,” Peterson says, saying he wrote the novel by taking walks for ideas, jotting notes as he went. “As an introvert it’s a nice way to go.”

As for the memoir, he’d embarked on organizing 80,000 family photos that date back to the late 19th Century.

“I was getting really bored trying to label all those” photos, he says. “I thought, ‘Why not write a book to tell the stories?’”

Even if the memoir marks Peterson’s shift away from all those pictures, “An Introvert Learns to Fly,” still includes 50 pages of glossy photos.

With thanks to his editor Pat Morris and his wife Miriam, who was an English teacher, he says the year of writing the book was a smooth process.

“This was relatively easy — I kind of knew where this was going,” Peterson says. Plus, he adds, he had clear purpose. “I think it’s useful to tell your story before you die.”

 

Work to ‘what’s next?’

Though a life-long introvert, Peterson says he often ended up in leadership positions, from the student council at Johnson High School to being an executive at Honeywell.

“People at various times gave me responsibilities ... I’m not charismatic, but I was quiet and they trusted me,” he says.

Learning how to manage and work with others came from trial and error, Peterson says, a process of accumulation. “I kind of learned to deal with people along the way.”

Peterson retired at 54, and Miriam followed suit a couple years later. He’s kept plenty busy, between the Rice Street Gardens, which is a large organizational task and a place where 10 different languages are spoken, and then travel and other pursuits like taking up day-trading and writing a couple books.

“It’s not as though I’ve been twiddling my thumbs,” he says, noting that if he were into less stimulating pursuits, in his opinion, like fishing or golf, that he’d probably already be dead.

A post-retirement pursuit that he’s perhaps most proud of is “Grandpa Camp,” as covered in the memoir.

Peterson, a grandfather of six, describes the camp as “bonding with grandchildren through messy experiments, cooking, photography, travel, advanced math” and more. 

Within those broad parameters, he’s been making sci-fi movies with one grandson for five years, complete with green-screen special effects shots, and another grandson has sent weather balloons 100,000 feet up into the sky.

“My retirement has been — I continued this idea of experiment,” Peterson says, noting that his two oldest grandchildren are getting more interested in experimenting on their own.

Contained in “An Introvert Learns to Fly” is a list of possible future pursuits for Peterson — it includes eventually handing the Rice Street Gardens over to the gardeners, getting back to organizing the family photos and even just cleaning up and organizing the house. As stated in his book, Peterson predicts he’ll “croak” at 81, so he’s got some time to fill.

“I’ve got to figure out what to do next,” he says.

“An Introvert Learns to Fly” is available on Amazon.com, www.barnesandnoble.com and www.itascabooks.com.

 

– Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813

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