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Making a Difference... From Ohio to Hollywood to MIT: Thomas F. Peterson Jr. ’57

Tom Peterson's photo and information from the entering Class of '57 yearbook. Tom Peterson's photo and information from the entering Class of '57 yearbook.

Tom Peterson spent only two years at MIT before he was called home to run the family company—but those four semesters shaped his interests and career for life. As a result, Peterson, who would go on to lead two very successful and very different businesses, decided to give back to the Institute by becoming an active member of the MIT Club of Cleveland, Ohio, and by supporting MIT across a range of fields, from cancer research to earth sciences.

Peterson came to the Institute as a first-year student in 1953 knowing that he would eventually return to Cleveland to work at his father’s company, Preformed Line Products (PLP), a manufacturer of equipment and systems for telecommunication and energy applications. Unfortunately, his father’s deteriorating health precipitated his son’s return. But MIT had already made an impact.

During first-year rush week, Peterson had to choose between a lecture by MIT’s Harold “Doc” Edgerton and one by Timothy Leary (then a psychology lecturer at Harvard). He chose Edgerton, whose work with photography inspired Peterson to explore photography and video. After returning to Cleveland, Peterson used his free time to pursue this interest, eventually concentrating on scripts, editing, and sound. Ultimately Peterson started Motion Picture Sound, Inc., a company that produced sophisticated audio for Hollywood, the Public Broadcasting Service, and the Department of Defense.

Peterson speculates that he may have chosen a very different path had he attended Leary’s lecture instead!

Calculus with Norbert Wiener, known as the founder of cybernetics, was Peterson’s most memorable class at MIT. There Peterson says, he “learned a lot about life, and not very much about calculus.” Wiener reviewed the homework problems in the first few minutes of class, only to spend the remaining hour brainstorming and bouncing ideas off his students.

Return to MIT

Tom Peterson at home in Cleveland, Ohio, with his collection of antique scientific instruments and books, some dating back to Galileo's time.  Photo Credit: Sandra Kay. Tom Peterson at home in Cleveland, Ohio, with his collection of antique scientific instruments and books, some dating back to Galileo's time. Photo Credit: Sandra Kay.

At the urging of local alumni, Peterson decided to join the MIT Club of Cleveland in 2000. Peterson was hesitant at first because he was not an MIT graduate. When he contacted the Registrar’s Office, they could not locate his files. A friend pointed out that Peterson’s freshman yearbook photo was on the Class of ’57 website, which Peterson shared with the Registrar’s Office. A short time later, the office did indeed find his file—in offsite storage marked “waiting for return.”

And return to MIT he did. Peterson is now actively involved in many things MIT, from supporting graduate students in engineering to the conservation of rare and antique books at the MIT Libraries to serving on the McGovern Institute Leadership Board and the Corporation Development Committee. But it’s the personal connections that matter most to him. Peterson especially enjoys his regular visits with professors on campus when they sit and brainstorm—much as he did in Wiener’s calculus class.

Peterson formed an instant bond with Christopher Moore, an assistant professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a principal investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. After getting to know Moore and his groundbreaking work on human perception, Peterson shared the professor’s frustration over a lack of access to equipment. Once a month, Moore had been borrowing equipment at Massachusetts General Hospital, but he wasn’t allowed to fine-tune it to his specifications.

Shortly after learning of the problem, Peterson gave Moore a two-photon microscope and an accompanying set of lasers for optical control of brain circuits. Within three months, Moore published an article in the journal Nature highlighting his results from using these instruments. Peterson was so pleased that he then contributed to the purchase of a magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine for the McGovern Institute. The MEG provides a different, yet complementary set of data from a two-photon microscope. Peterson is eager to learn about the results from these studies in the coming months.

A proponent of interdepartmental collaboration, Peterson remarks that “some of the greatest breakthroughs in history were made by people who were not experts in that field.” They are uninhibited because they don’t know what “can’t” be done, he says. In this vein, Peterson introduced Moore to Benjamin Weiss, an associate professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). Recently, Peterson began supporting Weiss’s research which uses state-of-the-art imaging technology, in this case SQUID microscopy, to conduct laboratory magnetic studies on rocks from Mars, the Moon, Earth, and asteroids to understand the development of planetary evolution and magnetism.

Through his gifts and the resulting discoveries, Peterson hopes to create a catalytic response, generating even more support than his own gift.  “I know that I can’t make the same impact as Bill Gates,” he says, “but I can make a difference. There is definitely research at MIT that would not happen without my support.”