Pete Peters

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Four things come quickly, indelibly, to mind about the life of Pete Peters.

First is the power of a single committed human being to effect good in the world. This represents the final rejection of determinist nonsense that, for example, the sonnets of Shakespeare were all written in the primordial universe that emerged from the Big Bang. In human affairs, there are choices, and those who choose to do for others can create innocence out of cynicism. When they are gifted and persistent, as Pete was, they can palpably improve the world.

Secondly, Pete had faith, as Lincoln put it at Cooper Union, that “right makes might.” He put his faith in reason and in the ability of ideas to change the direction of the body politic. After a remarkable business career he set about to change the conventional wisdom through tenacious persuasion, but with an ever-modest demeanor. How this contrasts with those who use accumulated fortunes to try to get themselves to political office.

Thirdly, Pete inspired all who follow him to understand that life after three-score-and-ten can be more productive than what came before it. Not all of us will be blessed with the good health Pete had, nor with a spouse in equally good health for so very long. Not all of us, at 95, will be able to publish an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe — one that in this writer’s opinion was more to the point than anything the newspaper produced in-house about education in 2009! But we are all to be inspired by Pete “…to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield,” as Tennyson put it.

Fourthly, is a point that some people get and some still do not: By any reasonable definition of the term, Pete Peters was the most liberal guy in contemporary Boston. In the press, “conservative think tank” still goes with drunken sailor, Boston driver, mad hatter and the like. On the contrary: Pete’s liberalism was at least two-fold — his respect for ideas, his and others — and his understanding that sometimes liberal ends are best achieved by what are loosely called conservative means.

2010 marks 45 years since Jonathan Kozol, who would write “Death At An Early Age,” served as a substitute Boston school teacher. In the last decade who, exactly, has been fighting to preserve a chronically failing status quo, and who was the persistent champion of equal educational rights for black, Cambodian, Cape Verdean, Hispanic, Portuguese and white children in Boston, Brockton, Fall River, Lowell, Athol — etc.?

We know the answer and must carry on.

David A. Mittell, Jr.