John M. Petersen, 86, of Bonita Springs, Fla., retired CEO of the Erie Insurance Group, civic leader, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, died May 30, 2015, in Savannah, Ga., following a two-year battle with cancer. We are all saddened by his death. John was an exceptional individual, and we were proud to claim him as an alumnus. In addition to having his own extremely successful career in business, John set an example for many others by his steadfast belief in and support of the University of Pittsburgh, which helped Pitt become the outstanding institution it is today. His investments in Pitt's future were strong examples of his belief in the progress that Pitt was making. His generosity and his interest extended across all aspects of the University, both academic and athletic. We have lost not only a remarkably generous benefactor but also a man whose values, commitment, and focus have had an immeasurable positive impact on the University of Pittsburgh.
Patrick D. Gallagher
Born and raised in Erie, Pa., John was the son of Peter Christ Petersen and Margaret Hauer Petersen. His father was a commercial fisherman, and as a young boy growing up during the Great Depression, John learned important life lessons catching and selling bait, building fish crates, and working on his father’s boat. He was a graduate of East High School and attended Gannon University. After serving in the United States Army at Fort Knox, Ky., he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1951 and was a member of the varsity swim team.
Following his graduation from Pitt, John began his business career at General Electric in Bridgeport, Conn., but in 1962, he returned to his hometown to join the Erie Insurance Company as an investment officer. Over the course of a 33-year career as a part of the Erie Insurance management team, he held a succession of increasingly important positions, including treasurer, chief investment officer, chief financial officer, executive vice president, president and chief executive officer, and director.
Throughout his career, John provided an inspiring model of both the value of working hard to achieve goals and of maintaining the highest standards of integrity. His efforts contributed significantly to the growth of the company, which joined the ranks of the Fortune 500 and became an increasingly important employer and corporate citizen of the Erie region.
When John joined the company as an investment officer in 1962, the property/casualty assets of Erie Insurance were valued at $20 million. By the time he retired as president and CEO in 1995, its asset value had climbed to $4.6 billion. Even after stepping down as president and CEO, John served on the company’s Board of Directors and also continued to manage its equity holdings. By the time he left the board and relinquished those investment responsibilities in 2003, the company’s asset value had risen to $8 billion, a record that led the company’s current board chair to refer to John as “Erie’s Warren Buffet.”
After retiring as president and CEO, John and his wife of 64 years, Gertrude Schmidt Petersen, retired to Bonita Springs, Fla. However, he returned to Erie to spend summers with friends and family, where he also continued to enjoy spending time on the beach and sailing on the lake and added golf to his list of activities.
Throughout his life, John gave his time and expertise to a variety of professional and civic organizations, including service on the Boards of Directors of the National Association of Independent Insurers, ClearCount Medical Solutions, Inc., the American Museum of Historical Documents, and the Gallery of History, Inc. He was a member of the Board of Directors of Hamot Hospital, provided adult leadership for Boy Scout Troop 122 at St. Peters Church, and was a supporter of the Erie Foundation, Penn State-Erie, and Gannon University. He also received Gannon’s Distinguished Pennsylvanian Award.
Reflecting their shared belief in the power of higher education, John and his wife Gertrude endowed college scholarships for students in financial need from their high school alma maters, East High School and Strong Vincent High School. That same commitment to higher education led to a series of extraordinary gifts to the University of Pittsburgh. Their many philanthropic commitments to Pitt included scholarship endowments in the Department of Athletics and the business school as well as lead gifts to create the John M. and Gertrude E. Petersen Events Center; the Gertrude E. and John M. Petersen Institute of NanoScience and Engineering; the John and Gertrude Petersen Deanship in the School of Medicine; and the Petersen Sports Complex, which provides practice and competition sites for Pitt’s baseball, softball, and soccer teams.
John and Gertrude were inducted into Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning Society. John was further honored by the University as a Distinguished Alumni Fellow and as a Legacy Laureate. He also was a recipient of the University of Pittsburgh’s Chancellor’s Medal.
Throughout his life, John also was deeply committed to his family. In addition to his wife Gertrude, he is survived by two daughters, Joan Petersen Chalikian (David) of Savannah, Ga., and Patricia Petersen Rickloff of Bonita Springs, Fla.; by a son, John C. Petersen of Atlanta, Ga.; and by five grandchildren: Jennifer and Catherine Chalikian and Peter, Marissa, and Matthew Rickloff. He is also survived by a brother, Richard Petersen (Dorothy) of Shelby Township, Mich., and a sister, Mary Lou Petersen Carlson (Erland) of Clymer, N.Y.
Friends will be received at the Burton Funeral Home, 3801 West 26th Street, Erie, PA 16506, on Friday, June 5, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. A funeral service will be held at Luther Memorial Church, 225 West 10th Street, Erie, PA 16501 on Saturday, June 6 at 11 a.m. The funeral service will be followed by a reception in the Fellowship Hall of the Church. An interment service will be held at the Erie Cemetery, 2116 Chestnut Street, Erie, PA 16502, following the reception. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the organization of one’s choice.