In Memoriam: Karen S. Peterson

Karen S. Peterson, RN, MPH, of Pittsburgh, died peacefully at home on January 7, 2011. She was 79. She was both an alumna and faculty member at the Graduate School of Public Health, having earned her master of public health in health services administration in 1970. After working in the community as a public health nurse, she was an educator and administrator at GSPH for more than three decades, coordinating master’s and doctoral programs, advising students, and teaching in the field of population studies.

During her time at GSPH, Peterson was honored at the school and University levels on several occasions. She was one of two inaugural recipients of the GSPH Margaret F. Gloninger Service Award in 1993. In 2000, she was recognized with the Chancellor’s Distinguished Public Service Award. And in 2003, she was chosen by GSPH students to receive the James L. Craig Award for Teaching Excellence. She also served on GSPH’s Senior Council advisory committee.

Her research and community service interests were international in scope, including maternal and child health, reproductive health policies, universal health care, and effective health and social service program planning. She was active professionally, serving a term as president of the Pennsylvania Public Health Association, and tirelessly building relationships among advocacy organizations. She engaged in community issues as a member of several groups: governing board, Early Head Start; board of directors, Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania; Allegheny County Homeless Alliance board and co-chair, Health Resources and Service Delivery Committee; president, board of directors, Community Human Services Corporation.

Peterson lived in Sheridan, Wyo., through high school and remained part cowgirl all her life, with a love of the outdoors and a spirit of Western hospitality and lending a helping hand. She graduated from University of Minnesota nursing school. A lifelong citizen activist, she joined the League of Women Voters as a young housewife in Portland, Ore., and eventually served on the board of the Pittsburgh league. In May 2010, she was re-elected Democratic Party Committee Member, Allegheny County, 14th Ward. She has also been a member of the Food and Nutrition Committee, Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank; Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; and Pennsylvanians United for Single Payer Health Care. Peterson’s daughter, Karrie Peterson, recalls, “Her pile of political T-shirts demonstrates her enthusiasm for progressive causes and civil rights, and many friends will remember her as one of Pittsburgh’s infamous Raging Grannies and as one of the intrepid overnight campers at the City County Building in solidarity with the homeless.”

When she wasn’t marching, singing out, or organizing, she and her companion, Dick Neller, could be found on the cross-country ski slopes, hiking, canoeing, ushering for local theater companies, or enjoying concerts. Her life is a testament to the value of community, hope, and personal responsibility for making our world a better place.

Peterson is survived by her daughters, sons, and their spouses: Elizabeth Peterson and Dave Eddy (Salt Lake City); Karrie Peterson and Robert Burton (Boston); Edward Peterson and Barbara Peterson (Seattle) and their children Melissa and Craig; and Barney Peterson and Amy West (St. Paul); and by her longtime and steadfast companion, Dick Neller. The family suggests remembering her with a donation to Community Health Services Corporation, 374 Lawn Street, Pittsburgh PA 15213, or the cause of your choice.

Friends, family, and colleagues are planning a memorial for early spring to celebrate her life and many causes. For information, visit


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