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As a child growing up in Portage, Russell Wilbur Peterson wanted to be "somebody who did something important."

He thought he might want to be a baseball star like Lou Gehrig, or a heroic pilot like Charles Lindbergh.

What he became, instead, was governor of Delaware; instrumental in the development of the synthetic fabric Dacron; president of the National Audubon Society and the person who is credited for preserving the environment of Delaware's shoreline.

Peterson, 94, died Monday at his home in Wilmington, Del.

His eldest child, retired teacher R. Glen Peterson of Jaffrey, N.H., said Peterson never lost touch with his Wisconsin roots.

"After we moved to Delaware," he said, "we drove to Wisconsin every summer. When I was in fifth grade and my brother was in second grade, we took the train and got off at Portage, where my grandparents met us.

"I loved Wisconsin - still do," Glen Peterson said, by way of explaining, in part, why he went to college at Lawrence University in Appleton.

Russell Peterson was a University of Wisconsin graduate, but before that, he was a member of the Portage High School class of 1934.

J. Robert Curtis of Portage, who graduated from PHS a year ahead of Peterson, remembered him as "a good student, a good athlete and a very personable man - or, at that time, boy."

Stewart F. Taylor Sr., a retired Portage physician, recalled how Peterson, who was several years older than he, supervised sandlot football games of younger children.

A book that Peterson gave to Taylor (and autographed for him "with admiration, fond memories and best wishes"), fills in other details of Peterson's Portage roots.

The book, part of an oral history series produced by the Delaware Heritage Commission, is titled "Russell W. Peterson, Governor of Delaware, 1969-1973." Its author is Christopher L. Perry, but much of the prose contained in the book consists of Peterson's own words, from tape-recorded interviews.

It was in his book that Peterson confessed his youthful desire to be "somebody who did something important."

His Portage High School chemistry teacher, Carl "Chuck" Warren, started him in the direction that would lead to his renown.

Taylor recalled Warren as a rigorous science teacher.

Peterson recalled Warren as the person who inspired his goal to "become a famous chemist and make some big discovery."

The seventh of eight children of Swedish immigrant Johan Anton Peterson, a baker, and Emma Anthony Peterson, Russell Peterson was the first in his family to graduate from high school. At PHS, he was a member of the varsity football and basketball teams and president of his senior class.

Despite economic struggles during the Great Depression - when Peterson's father had to take a cut in pay because he was battling cancer - Peterson attained his bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1938, and his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1942 from UW.

It was at UW, according to Taylor, where Peterson was reunited by chance with his Portage High School sweetheart, Lillian Turner, who would become his wife of 57 years.

After her death, he married June Jenkins Peterson, who has been his wife for 15 years, and who survives him. Other survivors include his children: Glen, Peter J. Peterson of Wilmington; Kristin P. Havill of Woodbury, Conn., and Elin P. Sullivan of Bedford Hills, N.Y. He also is survived by 17 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

In graduate school, according to Perry's book, Peterson became "obsessed with the idea of solving the cancer problem."

He worked at the DuPont Company in Delaware for more than 26 years, where his work as a research scientist included modification of nylon fibers for use during World War II, including parachute, shrouds and airplane tires. He became director of a division responsible for launching new products, including a polyester fiber called Dacron.

A progressive Republican (who switched to the Democratic party in 1996), Peterson was elected governor of Delaware in 1968. One of his most noted accomplishments, however, also played a key role in costing him re-election: the passage of the Coastal Zone Act of 1971, which banned heavy industrial development along Delaware's coastline. Corporate, political and union interested challenged the measure in court, without success, resulting in the environmental preservation of Delaware's Atlantic coast.

His son Glen said Peterson's interest in birds began when his younger son, Pete, developed an interest in bird-watching, prompting the family to travel to the Florida Everglades.

"We went to see some of the birds' rookeries," said Glen Peterson, "and had the most fantastic time. That was the first time that my father thought of someday being president of the National Audubon Society."

He was appointed to that "dream job" in 1979, and stayed with the organization for six years.

To the best of Taylor's recollection, the last time Peterson visited him in Portage was in March 1999, when he spoke at UW. The two drove around Portage looking at Peterson's "old haunts," he said, and lamented the disappearance of the abundant vacant lots where they, as children, played (and where, once, they participated in a track meet that Peterson organized). They visited the graves of Peterson's family at Silver Lake Cemetery, and met Curtis for lunch.

Taylor said he, and likely others in Portage, discerned early that Peterson would lead an accomplished life.

"Russell was always the all-American boy," Taylor said. "He was a role model for the younger children."



 Russell Wilbur Peterson

This list of lifetime accomplishments for Russell Wilbur Peterson - born in Portage in 1916 - is by no means exhaustive:

• Governor of Delaware, 1969-1973.

• Research scientist at DuPont, where he played a role in the development of Dacron.

• President of the National Audubon Society, 1979-1985.

• Founder of the Three S Citizens Campaign (for "Salvage People, Save Dollars, Shrink the Crime Rate"), which led to reforms in Delaware's criminal justice system. As governor, he abolished debtor's prison and removed the nation's last flogging post.

• Worked with Nelson Rockefeller (later U.S. vice president) to establish the National Commission on Critical Choices for Americans.

• Among the first inductees, in 2003, to the Portage High School Hall of Fame.

• 2007 inductee to the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame.