In memoriam: Rick Peterson

Rick Peterson at Project Bamboo Workshop 4I was deeply saddened to get word that Rick Peterson, CTO of Washington & Lee University, passed away yesterday evening after a long and difficult battle with brain cancer. Rick (right, with Dick Kuettner at Bamboo Workshop 4) was an indefatigable supporter of improving scholarship and teaching through the judicious use of technology, and was one of the strongest representatives of small liberal arts colleges at the Project Bamboo workshops where I met him. Since 2008, I've worked with him and his college friend/German professor Kent Hooper, of the University of Puget Sound, on a bibliographic listing of secondary sources related to Ernst Barlach.

To this day, Kent describes himself as the "worst case scenario faculty member" for digital humanities, though now that's hardly fair, thanks to Rick's influence. Kent knew the basics of word processing software, e-mail, and web browsing (though I had to introduce him to browser tabs), and was planning on publishing his bibliography-- which represents over 20 years of work-- as a set of printed tome. But Rick dissuaded Kent, convincing him that for this resource to last and reach as many people as possible, TEI was the route to take.

Project Bamboo took on Kent's bibliography as a demonstrator project, and I worked with Rick and Kent for over a year to generate XSLT for the bibliographic sub-listings, with the help of Jacob Jett from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rick always knew when to chime in with helpful technical suggestions or a reality check. But he wouldn't settle for "just good enough"-- we had a pre-generated HTML version of the bibliography posted on-line, but in such a format, all the files would need to be re-created and replaced every time Kent added a new resource to the bibliography. We had talked about dynamically generating the pages using Cocoon's XSLT processing, but development stalled.

The last time I spoke with him over the phone, in September 2010, he asked about "Barlach 2.0" again. It's not quite live yet, but I finished the work this fall and put together a screencast of dynamically-generated Barlach listings running on Ubuntu in mid-December. I'm grateful he had a chance to see it.

Pete and HoopsRick didn't let others' indecision stand in the way of making progress towards a good cause. Between Bamboo workshops 4 and 5 (April - June 2009), he independently hired a developer from San Francisco, brought him out to Virginia, and in three weeks had him do a mockup of the "Bamboo Exchange"-- a "Craigslist" for digital humanities. To me, it was one of the most striking demonstrations in the entire Bamboo process of how much "cyberinfrastructure" a single person can build in a short time if they stop hand-wringing, acknowledge that what they build will change, and just jump in and do something that people can respond to and build on. Even though the "Bamboo Exchange" thread was dropped from the final Bamboo Technology Proposal, the same idea re-emerged as a possible direction for a National Collaboration for Digital Humanities grant put together by small liberal arts colleges. It's a development I'd love to see-- the aspect of Bamboo that Rick so believed in, that he believed (I think rightly) could make such a difference for small liberal arts colleges' abilities to undertake projects that require specialized expertise for a short period of time-- finally coming to fruition.

Nothing I've said here comes close to conveying the essence of Rick Peterson. His friendship with Kent was what college students dream of their relationship being with their closest friends, 30 years down the road, but it's something so few achieve. He had a smile and a sincere kind word for everyone, even those of us with no particular status or influence. He was the kind of person to insist on taking a grad student out to a nice meal, and talking to them as an equal. Rick was passionate about his job, but it was his compassion and enormous heart that really set him apart. He was a force for good, both on the professional and the human level, and I will miss his light.


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