Teaching Legacy: H. Donl Peterson

A Lifetime of Faithful Living

Brian L. Smith

Brian L. Smith (brosmith@byu.edu) was a visiting faculty member from Seminaries and Institutes when this was written.

As a semester abroad student in Israel in 1973, I watched Donl Peterson in a major international airport gathering lost and confused students to safety. We were being evacuated in the middle of the Yom Kippur War. We soon learned we were safe when we were with him. He offered comfort, up-to-date information, good judgment, a sense of humor, intellectual mentoring, and inspired leadership. What more could a college student want from a college professor? We did more than attend class; we lived with the shepherding professor. Brother Peterson made us feel welcome and motivated to learn. He was credible as a teacher, which meant that we could trust his responses to our questions. This motivated us to ask many more questions. We sensed that he possessed a Christlike love for each of us, and it was fired by a lifetime of faithful living.

Early Years

Donl was born on February 17, 1930, in Lehi, Utah, to Harry C. and Mada Peck Peterson, as one of three children. His father was a sales representative who moved his family to several areas of the Northwest, including Eugene and Corvallis, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; Seattle, Washington; and then back to Lehi when Donl was starting the ninth grade. Donl grew up during the financially difficult times of the Depression and World War II, and he was recognized early for his dependability and determination. At age five, he had a delivery route for Collier’s Weekly, and he delivered newspapers throughout high school. In the summer he sold cucumbers, blankets, and silverware door-to-door.

In high school, Donl excelled in football, basketball, track, and baseball. He was elected the junior class president and had a great love for music. Donl had a wonderful bass voice and sang in choirs and quartets. He was recruited to play the tuba because he was familiar with the bass notes. He also was strong enough to carry the instrument in parades. Donl had a wonderful time in high school and made lifelong friends.

BYU Student Years

In 1947, Donl was offered two scholarships at BYU, one for music and one for basketball. He chose basketball. While high jumping, he broke his foot, which limited his running ability and caused him to be cut from the first BYU basketball team to play in the NIT tournament in New York. In his journal he wrote, “I continued to play basketball for the Manavu Ward, and in 1948–49 we took fourth place in the All-Church Tournament, bringing home the sportsmanship trophy. I was selected as the ‘player of the day’ and received a beautiful wristwatch.” This was his favorite story to tell when someone was dealing with disappointment in his or her life.

While at BYU, Donl lamented: “I didn’t find any field of study that appealed to me during the first three years. I started out in sociology, but this soon lost its luster. I next tried radio speech. I worked on the staff at KBYU for a year, but this still didn’t gel.” Before and after his mission, Donl worked for several radio stations as an announcer and assistant sales manager. He had a powerful, resonant voice, and he worked with several individuals who would eventually become General Authorities, among them Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve and L. Aldin Porter of the Seventy. Also, before his mission, he worked double shifts at Geneva Steel to put himself through school. Donl called himself the CBMO (Concrete Breaker Machine Operator).

During Donl’s sophomore year (1948), he met a “pretty blond” freshman named Mary Lou Schenk in a speech class. He was running for and later elected as the junior class president for the 1949–50 school year. She was excited to go to all the election parties and dances. He considered running for student body president but decided he must serve a mission.

In June 1950, Donl was called to serve in the Western States Mission. He left for the field (Denver) in October 1950. Elder Peterson loved missionary work and was a devoted and dedicated missionary. His mission president, Ray E. Dillman, was a lawyer. Elder Peterson eventually served as a second counselor to President Dillman for eleven months. He organized branches, interviewed, wrote missionary lessons, and proselyted. President Dillman was so impressed with this young missionary that he promised he would pay for Donl’s schooling and accept him into his law firm after he graduated.

Marriage and Early Career

Soon after his mission, Donl was determined to get into shape to play basketball. He took a disc jockey job and found the girl he had left behind. May Lou had just one quarter left of school. In his car on the way to Alpine, Donl asked Mary Lou to open a small box found in the glove compartment; it contained a wedding ring. He had just finished playing a basketball game earlier that night. The proposal happened in February 1953, and they married six weeks later on March 18, 1953, in the Salt Lake Temple. Mary Lou graduated in June 1953. After returning to BYU, Donl changed his major to political science and graduated with a BS in June 1954. Donl could have pursued a law career, but he felt impressed to participate in a new seminary training program.

The Petersons had signed on to be “dorm parents” for the Heritage Halls, and money was tight. It was here that their first child, Terry, was born. During the summer, when the 140 girls in the dorm were gone, Donl had to find additional work. He took a job working as night clerk at a local hotel. He had now been accepted into the seminary program, and at the end of the summer of 1954, he began his first assignment in the mining town of Globe, Arizona. At this time, the seminary program was sponsoring summer classes, and General Authorities taught many of the classes. Elders Harold B. Lee and Bruce R. McConkie were two of the instructors. It was a challenge for a newly hired seminary teacher to attend these early-morning classes after working an all-nighter in a smoke-filled hotel lobby.

Brother Peterson had regular contact with William E. Berrett, supervisor of what came to be known as the Church Educational System. Two of the other supervisors were Ted Tuttle and Boyd K. Packer, who traveled around visiting different seminaries. They liked to come unannounced and walk casually into a classroom or stop by the house for a visit. Sister Peterson felt that this was their way of seeing how everyone really lived. This often put pressure on a seminary teacher’s wife to prepare a quick dinner or change the bedsheets. She recalls one visit: “I had venison steaks thawing, and I had bread rising on the cupboard. Boyd and Ted were so pleased with the dinner, at least that’s what they said. As we were seated around our chrome table in the kitchen, the men said it was just like being home. They were kind and insisted that they liked the venison. Both men were deer hunters.”

Later, Donl taught in Murray, Utah. Then he became an institute director at Dixie Junior College and eventually at Washington State University.

Career at BYU

Donl received his EdD the summer of 1964 from Washington State University. Later that year, Dr. West Belnap, dean of Religious Instruction at BYU, requested that Donl join the faculty. He had the choice of joining BYU or becoming the institute director at Cedar City. At that time, the president of Dixie College was in the last stages of cancer, and prominent people suggested that Donl apply for the position. He was interviewed by the State Board of Education but was not hired. When Donl decided to work at BYU, he and Mary Lou felt it was the best decision and the one the Lord wanted them to make. Had he not come to BYU, he would have lost opportunities for scholarship, research, and writing that he needed to accomplish. He taught at BYU from 1964 to 1993. While at BYU, he served as director of Book of Mormon Studies and of Pearl of Great Price Studies. He also filled a number of prominent faculty positions and committee memberships. Donl served on several Church writing committees, contributing to many Gospel Doctrine manuals.

Travel Studies and Study Abroad

Donl directed BYU Travel Studies to the Holy Land, Europe, Mexico, and Guatemala. He directed at least twelve different tours to the Middle East over the years and two study abroad programs in 1973. Donl’s love of the Holy Land can be seen in a 1973 journal entry: “Today we enjoyed a bus tour of the outskirts of the old city, Bethany, Bethlehem, and a quick run through the new city. We visited things in sequence of the Savior’s time of death. The Garden of Gethsemane was our first stop, and as I gazed in wonder at those gnarled old olive trees that date back to the time of the Savior, I can’t believe that I’m actually in this very lovely garden on the Mount of Olives once more. Here our Savior worked out our salvation and suffered unbelievably for all of our sins. May I always be worthy to share in the Atonement, and may I perfect my life.”

The students of the first study abroad group in 1973 put together a performance that was seen by many groups, including the military. President David B. Galbraith said: “We were able to tell a little about the church and BYU. It was a thrilling experience, and the young people were able to get closer to the people of Israel. On countless occasions we parted with firm handshakes and tears in eyes and made many, many new friends.” On April 5, 1973, Mary Lou shared in her journal, “Performed the show in the open-air amphitheater attended by 1,100 to 1,300 soldiers. This was our first try with an electric piano. During the show, many of the soldiers danced by their seats and were elated with the performance. They presented Donl with a picture of Sharm in grateful thanksgiving. The captain said that if the Army did not like the performance, we could expect them to throw tomatoes, etc., but the Army loved it. They kept shouting ‘Ode pam!’ which means ‘more, more.’”

During the fall 1973 semester abroad program in Israel, Professor Peterson, his family, and students were caught up in a Middle Eastern conflict known as the Yom Kippur War. Israel was attacked from the north by Syria and from the south by Egypt. As the situation grew worse, Donl faced the challenge of getting his family and students out of the country. In a letter sent to President Harold B. Lee and BYU president Dallin H. Oaks that was published in the BYU Daily Universe, Mary Lou wrote: “Donl reminded the students that the Lord would take care of us and that we must remain calm and listen to the Holy Spirit. After this we sang several hymns, and a beautiful spirit of serenity enveloped our group. Donl then led us all in a family prayer and invoked our Heavenly Father’s Spirit be with us to protect us. We think that without exception all felt reassured and safe.” The group left Israel for Salzburg, Austria, and finished their study abroad experience there before returning to America.

Research on the Book of Abraham

Donl’s research on the history of the Pearl of Great Price, more specifically the Book of Abraham, was called a “magnificent obsession” by fellow professor Robert J. Matthews. This interest came about in response to the questions and interest the students had about the Book of Abraham. He was very uncomfortable with so many “I don’t knows” in his lectures. During his research he made many important discoveries relative to the history of the Book of Abraham, including Antonio Lebolo’s will. After a number of trips to the Middle East, Europe, and the eastern United States, he methodically documented the journey of the Egyptian collection that contained the Book of Abraham papyri which the Prophet Joseph Smith purchased in 1835.

Donl helped set straight many issues surrounding the coming forth of the Book of Abraham. Where did the mummies that were with the papyri come from? How did they get to America? Who was Antonio Lebolo? Who was Michael Chandler? What journey did the mummies and the papyri take before they were purchased by Joseph Smith? Who played important roles caring for the collection purchased by the Saints? How did the early pioneers care for the collection? What original artifacts and manuscripts may still exist? Were all of the papyri destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871? How did the Book of Abraham become part of the Pearl of Great Price? We know much more about this sacred scripture because of Donl’s research.

Donl wrote several books and articles. He contributed to Church magazines, manuals, and scholarly journals and was the author of study guides and books on the Pearl of Great Price and the Book of Mormon. His final project, The Story of the Book of Abraham: Mummies, Manuscripts, and Mormonism, was completed and then was published posthumously by the family in 1995 and remains the most comprehensive work dealing with the coming forth of the Book of Abraham.

Love of Family and Gospel

Donl’s love of the gospel and of his family was exemplary. Mary Lou shares how the family felt during one Christmas when money was tight. All she gave Donl was a Christmas card. The message stated: “Our marriage is so beautiful and such a spiritual beginning for our life and eternity together. You are so gentle and sweet and have continued to be so considerate and kind to me through the years. I am so fortunate to have such a good husband. You have brought such courage and strength into our marriage. Your faithfulness in the gospel enriches your life and reflects in my life and in the lives of our children. You honor your priesthood and by so doing make our lives content, rich, and beautiful. Through the years as we have learned, worked, prayed and played together, I learned to love you more and more. As the children have been born, I’ve appreciated your tenderness and concern more with each child.”

His last communication to his family was to bear his fervent testimony, admonishing each member to always remain faithful and sweet in spirit. This they pledged to do. After Donl passed away from cancer on March 21, 1994, at the age of sixty-four, the flag outside the BYU administration building was lowered to half-mast in his honor.

Note: I thank Mary Lou Peterson for the use of Donl’s personal journals and photos in preparing this article.