In Focus: Ohio's Gale Peterson

Article excerpt

GALE PETERSON'S PLAN TO TEACH HIGH SCHOOL history had one fatal flaw. Not his B. 5. in History and Government from Iowa State University. Not his master's degree and doctorate from the University of Maryland. Not his work as a researcher for the Smithsonian Institution's Living Historical Farms project.

"I couldn't coach football," Peterson says with a chuckle. "I don't know how I thought I could teach high school history when I couldn't coach athletics."

Instead, Peterson embarked in 1 973 on a career in the museum world that culminated in the job he has held for the last thirteen years: director of the Ohio Humanities Council.

"I have always loved history since I was a boy growing up in Iowa," Peterson says. "And as! grew older I recognized that history was important, yes. but that it also needed to be taught well."

Peterson first worked at the Organization of American Historians, where he helped conceptualize what became the NEH's United States Newspaper Program.

In I 978, he began his life's work of "making history more accessible to the people" when he became executive director of the Cincinnati Historical Society. He held the job for nearly two decades before leaving for the Ohio Humanities Council.

Peterson has a passion for making the humanities "accessible to a wider audience" and "bridging the gap" (between scholars and the general public). That's why he points to the council's Ohio Chautauqua program as one of his defining endeavors,

"So often scholars speak only to their peers," he says. "Atypical historical monograph might have a press run of only five hundred copies. I appreciate the historian's work. Documentaries and television programs couldn't exist without the historian's spadework. I think part of our job is to distribute that work, to create ways to engage people beyond the monograph or the classroom. We want to celebrate history, but also help people analyze it. We're the context people,"

The Chautauqua, a staple during Peterson's tenure at the council, is a five-day traveling tent show held in Ohio towns and featuring scholar-actors who assume the roles of historical figures. The most recent Chautauqua included first-person historical portrayals of W. C, Fields, Margaret Mitchell, Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Orson Welles.

"The Chautauqua is living history," Peterson says. "And because we take the Chautauqua to towns like Archbold and Gallipolis and Cambridge, we're able to raise our profile throughout the state and reach into places that wouldn't normally have access to this sort of entertainment and history. …