OREM — Sitting behind his desk at Utah Valley University, comfortably perched below the trophy elk he shot a few years ago in the Book Cliffs — Val Peterson’s body language suggests he doesn’t have much more going on than the elk.
He never once looks at the clock on his credenza, which is a good thing, since it’s an hour slow, having failed to make the change to daylight saving time months ago.
The laid-back attitude. The not checking the time every five minutes. The apparent lack of urgency. None of this fits with the preconceptions for this interview.
The idea is to profile a man who has more balls in the air than Donald Trump’s lawyers. A person who is vice president and chief financial officer of a major university, a state legislator (R-Orem) AND a recently retired brigadier general in the Utah National Guard. Along with being a husband, father, grandfather, member of the bishopric in a Mormon ward and big game hunter.
How does one human being possibly fit all that in? How does one possibly have time for this interview?
Asked about that, Peterson, 54, seems genuinely stumped for an answer, as if he’s never really thought about it.
The first thing he manages to say is, “Well, you’ve got to give a lot of credit to Ann.”
Ann is Peterson’s wife. They met when they were students at BYU and were married in the summer of 1985, when he managed to fit in the wedding between hauling hay in Idaho, National Guard training in Arizona and the start of fall semester. Multitasking is nothing new for the Petersons.
“Val is a very driven individual. He likes to have a lot of irons in the fire, or wear a lot of hats, however you want to say it,” says Ann Peterson, who, after 32 years of marriage, agrees that they do make a good team.
“We made the decision early on that he would pursue the careers and I would be there for the kids,” she says. “I’ve always had the privilege of being a stay-at-home mom.”
Then she adds, “What amazes me is how he keeps it all straight.”
Right now Peterson has another state house campaign to prepare for (he will run for his fifth term representing Orem District 59 this fall), a new president to break in at UVU (President-elect Astrid S. Tuminez makes it six administrations he’s served under in 31 years at the school), not to mention the periodic National Guard duties that come the way of a retired brigadier general.
But he’s been busier.
How about 2012-16, when as an active general he was in charge of overseeing the training of more than 5,000 Guardsmen in addition to being a full-time college administrator and a legislator running for office every other year? Or 2007-08, when he got his master of strategic studies degree from the United States Army War College by going online and studying every night between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.? Or the 17 years he spent getting three degrees at BYU (bachelor’s in 1987, master’s in 1994 and PhD in 2002) while also working full time in academia and advancing in the Guard from lieutenant to captain to major to lieutenant colonel to colonel?
Or, for that matter, how about when he was 8 years old and got a paper route delivering the Spokesman-Review in addition to going to school, doing chores on the family farm and making sure there was enough fuel for the wood-burning fireplace?
As his wife puts it, “Life with Val has never been boring.”
The work-and-more-work ethic can be traced back to Charles Peterson, Val’s father, who no one ever called a slacker. In 1963, the same year Val Peterson, the oldest of six siblings, was born, Charles Peterson left the perfectly good family farm he was running in Emmett, Idaho, and re-enrolled at the University of Idaho in Moscow so he could pursue a master’s degree in agriculture engineering and become a professor.
“I’d have starved to death if I’d continued farming,” Charles Peterson says. But he didn’t stop at a master’s. After the University of Idaho put him on its faculty, he went on to get his Ph.D. and become dean of the school’s college of engineering. All while continuing to farm on the side on land he leased on the outskirts of town.
That’s where Val Peterson grew up, moving between life on the campus and life in the fields, emphasis on moving. He was a ball boy for University of Idaho ballgames. He went to events on campus. He hunted and fished in the mountains. He hauled hay, dug ditches, drove tractor and helped with the harvest.
There was always something to do. That included keeping the wood stove fed.
“Every winter we’d get eight cords of wood and my brothers and I would have to cut it, split it and stack it,” remembers Peterson. “As soon as the last brother was out of the house, my dad switched to gas.”
Peterson ran cross-country, sang in the choir and was a student body officer at Moscow High School, before departing on an LDS mission to Colombia when he was 19. Upon his return in February of 1984, the winter semester at BYU was already half over, but so as not to waste any time, his mother, Julie Anne, had already enrolled him on the block schedule. Within four days he was back in the classroom.
When the semester ended in April of that year, on a whim, he accompanied his uncle, also a BYU student, to a meeting with a National Guard recruiter.
In Colombia, Peterson had observed that military service was mandatory.
“I remembering thinking they had so little to defend and yet they had conscripted service, they had to do it. Whereas we, who have so much, had a choice.”
Bottom line: he chose to join up. Less than a week later he was in Missouri for basic training.
By 1987, after deftly juggling ROTC, his classwork and married life, he had a commission in the Utah National Guard as a second lieutenant and a bachelor’s degree in communications from BYU. Better yet, he had a job. Even before he graduated, he was hired as an information technician in the public relations department at what was then called Utah Technical College. A month after he started, the name was changed to Utah Valley Community College. In 1993 it became Utah Valley State College and in 2008 Utah Valley University.
Peterson rose steadily through the name changes. He was promoted to director of college relations in 1990, to assistant vice president for college relations in 1994, to associate vice president for college relations in 1996, to vice president for college relations in 2002 and in 2003 to vice president of finance and administration, the position he continues to hold.
In the National Guard, same story. From 1993 to 2012 he progressed through the ranks from company commander to battalion commander to brigade commander before being promoted to brigadier general.
As for the political world, Peterson served for 10 years as UVU’s legislative liaison to Capitol Hill from 2000 to 2010, at which point UVU President Matt Holland suggested Peterson run that fall for a state house seat that was being vacated in Orem’s district 59.
“It wasn’t a conclusion I came to instantaneously,” says Holland. “His responsibilities (at UVU) are more than just financial, they also involve facilities and security and operations and overseeing the lion’s share of the staff. To know we’d lose him more or less for 45 days (during the legislative session) was no small thing, and on top of that he had National Guard duty.”
But Holland went ahead with his encouragement.
“In weighing everything out, in terms of his ability and bandwidth, I felt there was so much he could do for the state and for education, that he could handle it – and I think it’s been a very, very good decision.
“He’s the all-purpose utility infielder, he gets the job done and moves seamlessly between very different worlds that are often very high stress.”
Before his first term as a state representative was over (he’d won the seat with over 84 percent of the vote), the National Guard made Peterson a one-star general.
When Jefferson Burton, the Utah National Guard’s adjutant general, made the decision, it wasn’t in spite of everything Peterson had going on, but because of it.
“My mantra is if you want something done right ask a busy guy to do it,” says Burton. “I knew Val would get the job done. He’s multi-dimensional. Time and again he’s demonstrated the capacity to handle a lot of difficult issues. He operates with a lot of calmness. He instills confidence in others with that calmness.”
General Brian Tarbet, who preceded Burton as the Utah Guard’s adjutant general, was Peterson’s longtime mentor, promoting him as his aide over and over through some 30 years in the Guard.
“Everywhere I went in the military I took him right behind me,” says Tarbet. “Put him anywhere in the garden and it will bloom. He’s put Utah on the map is so many ways. He’s very quiet, very effective, a behind the scenes guy who gets things done. Sort of like a duck in the water. It looks very elegant but there’s a lot underneath that’s getting done.
“He was one of the best of the citizen soldiers and he’s one of the best of the citizen lawmakers — all while helping run the largest university in the state.”
“I’ve always done a lot; always been involved in a variety of different things,” Peterson says, squirming just a bit as he sits in his office beneath the trophy elk and tries his best to be accommodating and talk about himself.
“I believe you have to have balance, in your spiritual, your temporal, your professional life. My parents have always worked hard. Between them and my wife, I think that’s where a lot of my drive and ambition comes from.2 comments on this story
“One of the things I’ve always prided myself in is taking on a job and doing it right. I think if you do a good job everything will take care of itself. I remember a big leadership training (in the Guard) and what it really boiled down to was just do what you’re asked and the rest will work out. I believe that. I’ve never been an aspirer. I never expected to be a general. I don’t really consider myself a politician. But I think I learned a lot from being in different command areas. It made me into a forward thinker.
“I do like to keep busy,” he adds, and he still hasn’t looked at the clock.