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George Peter, 'champion' of Cornell employees, dies at 86

George Peter, who revolutionized the status of Cornell employees and served as a tireless ambassador for the university, died Aug. 10. He was 86.

Nearly 40 years ago, Peter led the effort to broaden Cornell employees' participation in campus governance, fighting for staff representation in university decision-making and official recognition of employee achievements. In 1975 he became the first employee-elected member of Cornell's Board of Trustees.

"George Peter was one of Cornell's champions," said Cornell President Emeritus Frank Rhodes. "He loved the university, served it in various full-time roles for over 40 years and was actively involved in its governance … He once remarked that he left a job that paid $4,400 a year and took one at Cornell that paid $2,200 because he thought the university would help him to develop and learn. 'It has done that,' he said. But in return, he taught the university and helped it to develop. In all he did, he was a leader and a person of transparent integrity and commitment. I had the privilege of knowing him for over 30 years, and I salute his memory."

Peter was raised on a farm near Ithaca and served in the Army Air Corps after graduating from Ithaca High School. His father, an Armenian immigrant, quarried the Llenroc stone used to build Myron Taylor Hall. Peter joined Cornell in 1947 as an electronics technician and in 1960 was asked to help install the world's largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, where he lived with his family for two years. He returned to Cornell to direct the Research and Development Laboratory of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which manages the telescope for the National Science Foundation.

In 1970 he was instrumental in founding the Cornell Senate, which was disbanded in 1977, and later the University Assembly. Each body saw gains for employees' voices. He was elected to Cornell's Board of Trustees four times and served on the search committees for two Cornell presidents.

Peter was a founder of the Cornell Recreation Club and of the Cornell employee newspaper -- today known as Pawprint -- for which he wrote a column called Leadership Leads. The column reflected Peter's upbeat outlook on life and urged staff to fully engage with the life of the university. "Everyone at Cornell is a part of the big picture," he once wrote. In 1985 he told the Alumni News, "Anyone can be a leader and take pride in Cornell, no matter what they do. And if the message is getting through from the top, employees will have pride."

After his retirement in 1988, Peter became an active member of the Cornell Retirees Association. In 1989, Peter Plaza, between the Hotel School and Uris Hall, was dedicated to Peter and his wife, Gloria, who died in 2005, as a gift from their four children. Peter was elected trustee emeritus in 1990. The Employee Assembly renamed its Dedicated Service Award, given to exemplary Cornell staff members, in Peter's honor in 1999.

"George Peter was a remarkable man, smart, talented, curious and wise," said Mary Opperman, vice president of human resources. "I met him when I first came to Cornell, when he and Alice Cook were described as people I needed to know. He gained confidence that I would be a good steward of one of Cornell's most precious resources -- the staff -- and a bond formed that blossomed into a friendship. He was a true friend, and his passing is a loss of the most personal kind. He made a difference in my life, and I miss him."

Calling hours will be at Shakelton Funeral Home, Aurora, Aug. 16, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., and Aug. 17, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Services will be held Aug. 17 at 3:30 p.m. in Phipps Auditorium at Wells College, followed by a reception at the Peter residence, 461 Main St., Aurora. Memorial gifts can be sent to the Aurora Volunteer Fire Department, P.O. Box 71, Aurora, NY 13026 or to the Morgan Opera House, P.O. Box 327, Aurora, NY 13026.

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