Harry Petter, the family fixer, dies at 85.
John Harrison Petter III, Harry, of Hudson, MA died on November 13 after a long illness. He was born three days before Christmas, and spent his life fighting for the right to a birthday party and a holiday celebration. (Separate gifts please!)
An only child, he was born into the Great Depression (it was 1933) and the difficulty of the world around him in his early childhood had a profound effect that would color nearly every choice he made in life. He was very sensitive to the needs of other people and to injustice in the world.
His parents raised him in Montclair, New Jersey. His father suffered from tuberculosis, and spent long periods of Harry’s early childhood in the sanitarium. His beloved grandfather, Joseph Smith, was a steady presence in Harry’s life, but sadly died before Harry reached high school. When his parents refused to send him to Julliard, he made his way to Dartmouth College, where he became deeply involved in his fraternity, Phi Sigma Kappa. It was 1955. He and other members became determined to integrate the fraternity, but were unable to under national rules. So they took their chapter local, and now as Phi Tau, they were featured in Time magazine.
That summer, while with his roommate and best friend Dick Scobie to drop off his date, Jill Hirst, Harry set eyes on her older sister Ann, who he described as the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Always a gentleman, Harry took his own date home, as planned. But then he stopped at a convenience store and bought a bag of potato chips before returning to the Hirst house. He and Ann sat on the couch eating chips. Three months later they married.
Harry was a tremendous musician, playing the saxophone in local bands. Many assumed he would become a professional musician. But then, after graduation, he shocked them all (especially himself) when he went to Divinity School at the University of Chicago. It was not a complete surprise, because he had led his enormous church youth group as a high school student. Later he would give a wonderful sermon about how if he could be called, anyone could be called. That first December their oldest child, Jennifer, was born. When Harry was doing his first ministerial work as Director of Religious Education for the Congregational Church in Michigan City, IN, they had a second child, Steven.
Harry became a Navy chaplain and the young family moved with him to San Diego. Harry served in DESPAC for months at a time while Ann was alone with the children. Harry loved the Navy, his counseling work and serving his country, but it was difficult enough for him to be away from his family that Harry decided to leave active service when his initial service was completed. His first church was in Cliffside Park, NJ, where they had two more sons, Timothy and Mark.
Always ready for a challenge, Harry moved to a new church, still under construction, in Fairport, NY, outside of Rochester, the home of Kodak, then a research powerhouse. It was a happy time for the family, surrounded and challenged by the intellectual powerhouses of the day in their congregation and as their friends. Ann founded the Rochester, NY chapter of NOW, the National Organization for Women, and became active in local politics. This time made a huge impact on Jennifer, especially, who grew up to become a research scientist.
But Harry was always a person who looked for new challenges and in 1972 he became frustrated wth the church’s ability to impact social change. Harry was the kind of person who took his family to march on Washington in 1963. He kept his children home from school to watch Dr. King’s funeral in 1968. Now he joined a non-profit organization, Ellis Memorial, dedicated to helping families and children, based in Boston. He and Ann bought their first house, in Newton. Their children grew up, graduated from high school and college. Steve, Tim, and Mark all began successful careers in the high tech industry.
He would late in life return to the ministry, serving the Congregational church in New Bedford, and then working as an interim minister and counselor. His sermons were wonderfully good. He married his children, and most of his nieces and nephews. His reflections in the middle of the marriage service were always meaningful and memorable. His funeral services were similarly heartfelt, even when it was personally difficult, like the service for his brother-in-law Mike. Harry’s wife Ann survives him as do his children Jennifer (Cathy), Steve (Randi), Tim (Lyssa) and Mark (Tina), and nine grandchildren: Elijah, Joshua, Amy (Chris Gauvin), Benjamin, Eleanor, Samantha, Aiden, Grace and Christopher, as well as two step-grandsons, Evan and Tyler. His great friend and brother-in-law Dick Scobie and wife Jill survive him as well.
Harry was a person who would go above and beyond the call of duty to help. A shining example of this was his friend Fred, who he first met in Fairport. When Fred, who never married and became blind, settled in Boston, Harry made sure to include him at every holiday. Fred went into a nursing home and Harry became his advocate, personally reviewing his care to ensure Fred had everything he needed. Rest assured that there were enough difficult and lengthy calls made on Fred’s behalf that the staff trembled when Harry walked in the door.
And that is maybe the best thing about Harry. He was a person who was unafraid to let his humanity show, all the shiny pretty parts, as well as those that were a little bit tarnished and broken. He had a huge heart. His dearest wish was that his beloved Ann would be taken care of. It was a life well lived, and while Ann and the rest of the Petters will miss him terribly, all are grateful for his time on this earth.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, December 28, 2019 at 10:30 AM at Edwards UCC Church, 39 Edwards St., Framingham, MA 01701.