College Place pastor remembered for broad, deep reach

The Rev. Robin Peterson, who died Tuesday, led his congregation for more than 30 years.

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COLLEGE PLACE -- A local pastor who affected multitudes in the Walla Walla Valley, has "gone home," according to his family.

The Rev. Robin Peterson, who led College Place Presbyterian Church for more than three decades, died at University of Washington Medical Center on Tuesday from complications of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Peterson, 59, was born in North Dakota to Joye Obert Peterson and Ruth Francis Woodard Peterson, the youngest of 11 children. The family moved to Washington in 1961, landing in the Yakima Valley.

Peterson and his family came to Walla Walla to answer a call to fill the College Place Presbyterian pulpit in 1978. He became the permanent pastor the next year.

"He was getting ready to go back to work on his doctorate, he needed a little money," recalled Bob Meyer, who headed the search committee at the time. "We were a mission church and it was a struggle to find someone who really wanted to come."

Peterson soon laid aside his plans to teach history and became invested in building the ministry, much to the delight of his flock, Meyer added.

At the time, the church had very small congregation, noted Jeffrey Townsend, who serves on the church's music ministry team. "He built that church from nothing."

Peterson was often called a visionary by his congregants and his outreach extended far beyond the walls of the building on Damson Avenue, explained Townsend, who accepts the title of close friend to his pastor with a caveat -- "So is anyone who knew him. He knew you and he remembered everything."

The Peterson family openly shared news of Robin's illness and the pastor detailed much of his medical journey in a blog, "Pastor Robin."

Peterson had been fighting his second bout with cancer in 12 years, undergoing a stem cell transplant in January. His daughter, Hanna Peterson -- also a pastor -- was chosen as the best match to donate cells to her dad, Townsend said. "He seemed the ideal candidate for stem cell therapy ... to give him a whole new immune system."

The procedure appeared to have promise for Robin at first, but the "laundry list" of possible complications came calling. Peterson came down severe pneumonia, along with other health issues. Treatment to deal with the lung problem was not acceptable to Peterson and his family, according to the blog.

The miracle occurred when Peterson called his wife Kriss at 4 a.m. Tuesday morning and asked her to come to him and to call the children, Townsend said this morning. "He told her he was going home."

The void left with the church leader's death will be tremendous, said Skip Pritchard, an associate on the College Place Presbyterian ministry team. "Robin was always there, at the right place at the right time. He was a man of tremendous (ministerial) reach."

There are too many stories to recount of Peterson's passion for helping others, Townsend said. "His natural empathy skills are so pronounced."

Most notable was his pastor's compelling ministry in visiting the sick, no matter if a person belonged to the College Place church or not. "He took them all under his wing," Townsend explained. "The thing I was constantly amazed at is he would have these days that were non-stop runs to hospitals and nursing homes, that had nothing to do with actual (church) members, just people in need. It would become part of his to-do list. No one had to ask, it never got that far."

Peterson's own experience with cancer and the invasive treatment it brings was instrumental in the creation of the Wasser House last fall. The two-bedroom house on the church's property serves as a temporary home for those undergoing chemotherapy and radiation at local hospitals. Wasser House allows families to be together during those times without crippling expense. Its a gift he'd been given in his own time of need, Peterson told the Union-Bulletin last winter.

The pastor was known for his exuberance for high school sports, attending games, meets and matches all over the Valley and beyond. "His reach was for kids. He found himself praying for those athletes who barely knew who he was, just this guy coming to their games. Sometimes their own parents didn't come."

Peterson's schedule never boxed the man in, Townsend said. If he had an impulse to stop by someone's house after visiting the sick all day long, Peterson acted on that feeling. "He was a man completely used by God, a life of service. He used all of his skills all the time and without complaint."

Peterson farmed as well as preached, Pritchard said. He grew onions and alfalfa and raised cattle, using those experiences to supply stories with which to teach "very practical life lesson on how to apply the gospel message in our lives."

The pastor was sought out by hundreds of couples to marry them, attracted to Peterson's understanding and grace in the face of individual and sometimes difficult circumstances, Pritchard said. "He lived his life embraced in grace, that absolutely nothing can separate us from God and he approached people that way. I think of Robin as the Mother Teresa of Walla Walla."

Peterson spoke five languages, including the French he taught at Whitman College, and had a "powerful intellect," the church associate said. "Yet when he communicated it was at a level that was down to earth and very practical."

Peterson, he added, "could be described as a real Renaissance man."

The pastor is survived by his wife, Kriss, and four children; Hanna, Amos, Ella and Cleo. A worship service is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at College Place Presbyterian and will be a time for family and friends of Peterson to gather and pray, said Doug Hayes, youth pastor.

Funeral plans were not known at press time.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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