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About Utah: Dr. Chase Peterson knows how to tell a story

Published: Thursday, May 31 2012 11:48 p.m. MDT

Dr. Chase Peterson, University of Utah president from 1983 through 1991, discusses his memoir, "The Guardian Poplar," at Weller Book Works in Trolley Square.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — To anyone who has ever had a conversation with Dr. Chase Peterson — the former president of the University of Utah, noted physician, one-time dean of admissions at Harvard and, perhaps most noteworthy, husband of Grethe — here's some good news.

You can have another one. This one lasts 300 pages.

Peterson is the author of "The Guardian Poplar," published and released this month by the University of Utah Press.

The book is billed as a memoir, but it's no conventional memoir. Chase, 82, tells his life story (so far) by relating a series of life stories, unencumbered by the strictures of linear chronology. It's all there, the punch lines, the subtle turn of phrase, the native intelligence, the outside-the-box take on things, that has long made Peterson a serious contender as the most interesting man in Utah — and definitely one of its best talkers.

The only difference is these words are printed, not spoken. But the effect is the same. His book reads like a really good, really long chat with Chase.

Born to a university president — his father, E.G. Peterson, was the head of Utah Agricultural College, now Utah State University, for 29 years — and later one himself, "The Guardian Poplar" runs the gamut from Chase's growing-up years in Logan to his educational exploits in Massachusetts, first at Middlesex boarding school, then at Harvard as a student and administrator, and back to Utah again. He wedges in stories about cold fusion and the first successful artificial-heart transplant, both from his time as president at the U., with stories about medical school and training at Harvard and Yale and his personal battle with a potent form of cancer that wasn't supposed to last more than two years and has long since passed a decade.

No matter where life has taken him, he writes that he's never felt far from his family's deep roots.

He tells about talking with a professor, Hugh Cabot, when he was in his sophomore year at Harvard. To that point, Chase had been attending schools in the East for five years, but he mentioned to Cabot that he'd never felt homesick.

"Of course not. You never left home," said the professor.

Chase writes that his first reaction was defensive: "What did that mean? Was it an insult? Was I a prisoner of my upbringing? Could I not escape Cache County, Utah?"

But he soon realized his teacher was paying him a compliment, that Cabot's implication was "I had brought my home with me. I began to sense that my family, culture and identity could turn out to be a passport, not a leash. That seemed to have something to do with the desire to open an unusually large number and variety of doors without knowing fully what lay behind them."

From his days as University of Utah president, Chase relates the well-known and the not-known-at-all.

Alongside stories about cold fusion, the artificial heart and wrestling the Legislature for more funding, there's the story about the Sigma Nu fraternity.

It seems that one day during his tenure as president, he was walking home past fraternity row when several Sigma Nu members, sitting on their second-floor porch watching the sun go down, called out, "Hi, President Peterson. Would you like to come up for a chat?"

He went up. And after shooting the breeze about this and that, he happened to mention to the fraternity boys that perhaps they could help him with a problem. After every weekend, there was a pile of broken glass by the ROTC anchor that sat kitty-corner from the Sigma Nu house and directly opposite the Pi Phi sorority house.

"We are quite sure it (the glass) comes from bottles thrown by the girls from the Pi Phi house," said Chase, who went on to explain that the university had ordered expensive infrared detection equipment to find out for sure.

Then he added, "If you fellows have any advice on ways we can save the cost of the infrared equipment, I'd be grateful."

A few days later, a letter appeared on his desk. It was from the Sigma Nu fraternity. "President Peterson," it began, "we enjoyed your visit last Friday. You might be interested to know that we have decided to order our drinks in plastic bottles."

Oh, and about cold fusion, the controversial "discovery" by chemist researchers Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann that caused the school, and him, no small dose of mainstream ridicule, he says, basically, hold your horses, the jury's still out.

Like all people who know how to tell a good story, in the end, he leaves you only wanting more.

Book signing

Chase Peterson will be at The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, at 2 p.m. June 9 to read from and sign his memoir, "The Guardian Poplar."

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. EMAIL: benson@desnews.com

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