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Dr. Dwight Peterson (1961-2016): A Meditation on Friendship and Hospitality

In the spring of 2013, I had a sudden and scary bout with atrial fibrillation (“a-fib”).  A “bout” might be understating it a bit: I passed out during a March faculty meeting while then-president David Black was speaking. I’m still grateful for all the faculty that initially assisted me. An ambulance was called, and I was quickly placed on a stretcher and sent to a local ER.

It was many hours before I returned home. There were seemingly countless medical tests and procedures: IVs, EKGs, blood work, blood pressure, medical questions, a review of family history, etc. When my wife brought me home later in the evening, I slowly walked through the doorway and I noticed a blinking red light on the cordless phone. I thought: “Who left a voice mail message?” Here it is almost word-for-word:

“Hello, Joe. Dwight Peterson here. What do you think you’re doing collapsing at a faculty meeting! Hey, remember I’m the one who’s really sick. I’ll be praying for you. Hope to see you soon, Joe.”

Dr. Dwight Peterson was placed in hospice care in August 2012, after teaching at Eastern for 15 years.

That 20-second voicemail message captures well the life and enduring legacy of Dr. Dwight Peterson: caring, humorous, and hospitable. It’s interesting to note the etymology of the word “hospitality” with words like hospital, host, and especially hospice.

Dwight, Margaret, and Mark extended to me and so many others the gift of hospitality through our visits, and through reading Dr. Margaret Kim Peterson’s entries on the Caring Bridge website. It was a gift extended from Jesus Christ himself each and every time. For that we are forever grateful.

I had a ritual—along with many others—of visiting Dwight, Margaret, and Mark each week. My day and time was locked-in on Friday afternoons at 4 p.m.—often accompanied by my good friend and former faculty member, Dr. Chris Hall.

The ritual was simple. For my visit, I would bring a grande no-foam latte and some treats from Starbucks to share with Dwight. It was nothing spectacular. Just coffee and cookies. But there was a sacredness to it. Almost sacramental as we drank and ate together each week. I would often joke that we were celebrating in some ways the sacrament of Holy Communion.    

These weekly visits were both life-giving and mysterious. Life-giving, because although I knew I was visiting a dear dying friend, it never felt morbid, depressing or hopeless. I left with a stronger sense of what it means to live life abundantly now by following Jesus. What an enduring legacy.  And it was also very mysterious, because quite frankly, as my colleague Dr. Wendy Mercier noted to me before the funeral service, “Remember Joe, Dwight failed hospice care!” I then quickly responded, “Wendy, it was probably his only failing grade he ever received.” What a mystery. But it is in that mystery that we discover the deep gift of Christian hope available to all of us.

Eastern University’s continuing prayers, love, and support are with Margaret, Mark, and the entire Peterson family.

What a privilege also during my visits to get to know Dwight’s extended family—his wonderful parents, Marlyce and Norm; his terrific siblings, Bonnie and Kurt; Margaret’s parents, relatives, friends, cousins, former students; and so many others from so many places.

Two final observations: Margaret, your love for Dwight was simply saintly. You didn’t just co-author a book on Christian marriage; you lived it unabashedly. We all noticed it and we are deeply indebted to you for that loving example.

And Mark, your love for your Dad was just what it needed to be. He was so proud of you, and he often tearfully told me he wanted to live as long as he could to see you grow up. And in many ways, he has.

Many have kindly asked: “So Joe, how are you doing?” It’s a question that I continue to think about. But in recent days, I may now know how to respond: “I’ll shed a tear Fridays at 4 p.m.”

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