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The Gentle Intellectual Giant

Chris Peterson, a personal mentor, national leader, and humanistic pioneer.

By Amy L. Ai, Ph.D.

Chris Peterson was both an intellectual giant and also an incredibly modest and kind person. In fact, he was the most modest and kind person I have encountered in my life. These traits cannot be overstated. How sad it is when such a superstar falls.

Our first meeting, about 20 years ago at his old office at the University of Michigan, remains vivid in my mind today. I approached him when he openly spoke against the anti-Asian attitude in a university newspaper article—an Asian doctoral student murdered colleagues at the University of Iowa. Out of that first face-to-face meeting, he became my mentor and then was dissertation chair, co-author, and co-principal investigator. Our strong working relationship continued for many years after I left Ann Arbor. 

Chris had a great sense of humor, and it was a joy to work with him. This may be one of the reasons why students at all levels loved him; there was always a long waiting line outside of his office. When I received my distinguished dissertation award at the UM Rackham Graduate School, Chris offered a humorous introduction for my study: "I have been on 59 committees and Amy's dissertation is the first to win this honor. I haven't known anyone who has linked cardiac surgery with LISREL (i.e., software for structural equation modeling). Now, I have learned that cabbage (i.e., CABG) is not just a vegetable but also open-heart surgery!" Everybody could not hold their laughter. Chris's mentorship altered my life forever; numerous other students, taught and mentored by him, feel the same.

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Chris was genuinely open to cultural diversity. He was not religious as were my five other dissertation committee members of different disciplines. However, he supported my various studies addressing the role of diverse culture, religion, and spirituality in people's lives. He developed his legendary theory about human virtues on a universal perspective, not on a one culture-centric perspective. When I visited Ann Arbor for our cardiac-surgery project, I shared my admiration for his Positive Psychology (PP) work but also my opinion about different natures of virtue. Chris was quite open to my critique. He told me that at a Positive Psychologist Summit back then, the most impressive paper was from a Korean scholar who linked PP virtues with Confucian moral characteristics.

Chris unexpectedly left us on October 9th. However, his last post on Psychology Today can be taken as a call for all of us: "Awesome: E Pluribus Unum: We are all the same, and each of us is unique, in death and in life.” Let us take it as his public will. When reading it, I feel reverent, if not in awe, toward his shining life and shaking death. I am in gratitude: He is my model in making the lives of others meaningful, and as a founder of positive psychology, a new paradigm for all cultures and beliefs.

Amy L. Ai is a professor and associate dean for research at Florida State University.

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