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November 16, 2011

Remembering Tom Peterson

The Friday before Halloween, I dropped by Bank Street Brewhouse to check out an art event. Turns out there had been an opening across the street at the Carnegie Center, and several people had filtered over to the brewhouse. The place was slamming.

As I opened the door, a single face revealed itself. It was Tom Peterson. He saw me and beamed. It is difficult to describe why someone suits your fancy, but that signature smile tells everything about why I revered Tom. He was, in all things, fast, natural and incandescent. Gleaming.

Tom loved how buying beers factored into friendship, and I got into him for two that night. I met two of his neighbors and spent the next hour talking about politics and healthcare. Tom loved that, too. He was a connector.

Eleven days later, Tom got a headache and drove himself to the hospital. As they checked on him, he suffered a seizure brought on by a brain aneurysm. He died early in the morning on 11-11-11. He’d have gotten a kick out of that.

Tom was born in suburban Chicago in 1952 and graduated from Woodford County (Ky.) High School and Murray State University. He began his career as a reporter at the Shelbyville Sentinel News before joining the Wenz-Neely Co., then the city’s largest public relations firm, in the mid-1970s.

It was a special time — young creatives stretching out, trying to transform Louisville from the self-proclaimed “city of the ’70s” into something a little more self-assured.

Tom got involved with Third Century — a committee of young professionals supporting Louisville Central Area, the downtown chamber of commerce. The group tended to travel in a pack, and one young lady, Laura Price, who worked at Jack Guthrie and Associates, the other prominent PR firm of the day, captured Tom’s heart. They married in 1985. (They went on to work together for many years as election coordinators for Associated Press Elections Service, which gathers state voting results for the national media.)

Early in the Reagan years, the Kentucky Derby Festival was preparing to release its first poster, by noted artist and designer Peter Max. Peterson and Dave Caudill put together their own poster, a more straightforward love poem to the city featuring a John Nation photograph of a horse and jockey in motion.

Caudill, now a prominent Louisville sculptor, said their poster caught on because of its indigenous nature. Instead of looking outward for a big-name artist to validate Louisville, he said, they showed what the local boys could do. The poster led Peterson and Caudill to form their own firm, PRIDE Inc.

A few years after John Yarmuth founded LEO, Peterson began writing a media column. Peterson weighed in on media matters local and national, big and small. One pet peeve involved TV weather forecasters’ penchant for hype. He often turned his gaze on LEO itself. On those occasions, Yarmuth said, “He always had a good understanding of what was important, the ethical issues involved … What always struck me about Tom is how seriously he took his responsibility as a columnist. Making a name for himself was never a priority. He saw his role as constructive, making the media better. That’s a very important trait. He was extremely thoughtful — a great writer but an even better thinker.”

When Kentucky Kingdom sued WHAS-TV for libel, Peterson became the definitive reporter on the story, which lingered for several years until WHAS paid out more than $7 million.

As LEO editor, I hated that we paid our talent a pittance. But I rest easy knowing LEO let him feel the juice that flows from doing important work.

After more than a decade writing for LEO, Tom had to opt out after he joined the U of L College of Business as marketing communications executive-in-residence.

At a memorial service, Tom was lauded by friends and colleagues for his impish nature, insatiable curiosity and unyielding enthusiasm. He was serious and irreverent. A little twisted and proud of it. His longtime friend Jim St. Clair, my journalism mentor, laughed as he recalled hosting a radio show with Tom. I can hear them giggling like little boys.

The wind blew hard that day, and a strange howl filled the room. We all laughed and figured it was Tom’s way of crashing the party. He was kinda like that. Bon voyage, Mr. Peterson. Thanks for the beers and the memories.

A Facebook page, Remembering Tom Peterson, has been created in tribute. In Tom’s memory, Laura encourages contributions to the Arts Council of Southern Indiana, 820 E. Market St., New Albany, Ind., 47150.

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