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Walter Peterson, former N.H governor who favored a moderate path; at 88

Former New Hampshire governors Walter Peterson (center), Hugh Gregg, and Jeanne Shaheen. Former New Hampshire governors Walter Peterson (center), Hugh Gregg, and Jeanne Shaheen. (Jim Cole/Associated Press/File 2003)
By Holly Ramer
Associated Press / June 3, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H. — Walter Peterson, who was the governor of New Hampshire for four years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, has died of lung cancer.

Governor Peterson, 88, who never smoked, learned he had lung cancer this spring and received treatment at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

A moderate Republican from Peterborough, he was governor from 1969 to 1973. He lost a bid for reelection after renouncing the traditional pledge of New Hampshire political leaders to oppose an income or sales tax.

Governor Peterson’s death was announced yesterday by Governor John Lynch, who ordered that the state’s flags be lowered.

Governor Peterson’s son, Andy, said his father died peacefully at 11 p.m. Wednesday at Monadnock Community Hospital.

“He felt an obligation to the greater world,’’ said the younger Peterson. “He felt strongly it was right to have an investment in the welfare of the town, the state, the nation, the wider world.’’

Andy Peterson said his father believed that people working together “are a much greater force than the problems we face.’’ He said his father knew there was evil in the world, but his real interest was in seeing the good in people grow.

In his statement, Lynch, a Democrat, said that Governor Peterson was an inspiration, a mentor, and a good friend he turned to for advice.

“Governor Walter Peterson represented all that is great and wonderful about our state,’’ the governor said in a statement. “With a strength of character as tough as New Hampshire granite, Governor Peterson was a true New Hampshire icon, a gentleman, and a strong example of courage and honesty in politics. He never wavered from his principles and always put the needs of people first, which is the mark of a great man and an extraordinary public servant.’’

In later years, Governor Peterson warned his party against becoming too extreme. In 2004, he joined other moderate Republicans in calling on President George W. Bush and the GOP to “come back to the mainstream’’ on the eve of the Republican National Convention. The group purchased newspaper advertisements, urging the GOP to stop weakening environmental law; start using “pay-as-you-go’’ budget discipline to end deficits; clear the way for embryonic stem cell research; and appoint mainstream federal judges.

Governor Peterson also served as president of Franklin Pierce College for 20 years and, for a year, as interim president of the University of New Hampshire. He also served in the New Hampshire House of Representatives in the early 1960s and as its speaker.

“How many times in life can you say you met a really great person? I’ve been in the presence of many great people, but none really compare to Walter,’’ said state Senator Lou D’Allesandro, who was a college student when he met Governor Peterson and later worked with him as vice president of Franklin Pierce University and president of Daniel Webster College.

Both were huge sports fans and often attended college games together, D’Allesandro said.

Andy Peterson said his father played semipro basketball in his 20s, including for the Boston Hobos.

“That is how my mother met him,’’ he said.

D’Allesandro last visited Governor Peterson on Saturday in the hospital.

“I held his hand, and he gave me that great smile,’’ said D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat.

In 2007, when D’Allesandro and Governor Peterson participated in NPR’s “StoryCorps’’ project, Governor Peterson was asked who he would most like to have dinner with. He picked his late father, D’Allesandro recalled.

“Here’s a guy who’s met presidents, met dignitaries all over the world, and the most important person in his life was his father,’’ the senator said. “He was a giving, amazing guy.’’

Born in Nashua, Governor Peterson graduated from Nashua High School and The New Hampton School. He attended William and Mary College and the University of New Hampshire and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1947. He also was a US Navy veteran, a partner in a real estate business, and served as president of the 1974 state Constitutional Convention.

“Walter’s passion for public service continued for decades after he left the governor’s office,’’ said US Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat. “His commitment to higher education, in particular, was unparalleled.’’

Governor Peterson married Dorothy Donovan in 1949. He leaves his wife and their two children, Margaret and Andrew.

A small private service for family and friends will be held Wednesday in Peterborough. A memorial service will be held at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord on June 12.