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Former Senate president Peterson dies in surgery

Curtis Peterson, who used his power as president of the Florida Senate to push for changes in the state's education system, died during heart surgery Friday afternoon at Lakeland Regional Medical Center. He was 73.

A Lakeland Democrat, Mr. Peterson served 18 years in the Senate and was president from 1982 to 1984. He left the Senate in 1990.

Mr. Peterson is considered the father of the education reform bill that imposed a seven-period day in Florida high schools and required students to obtain 24 credits to graduate.

His family and friends want him to be remembered for his service to his community and neighbors.

"The politics was only for 18 years. He lived for 73," son Pete Peterson said. "Dad's favorite quote was from the Rev. Peter Marshall: "The service we give is the rent we pay while here on Earth.' "

Mr. Peterson was one of the first licensed landscape architects in Florida, and he loved horticulture, operating Peterson Nursery with his brother Howell for years before selling it in 1987.

"Curtis Peterson was a gentleman of the highest order," Gov. Lawton Chiles said. "He was a good leader for Florida and treated everyone he met with such respect. He was a role model and a gentleman."

U.S. Sen. Bob Graham called Mr. Peterson "an outstanding individual who personified public service in Polk County and Florida."

Newton Curtis Peterson Jr. was born Aug. 23, 1922, at a home on Tennessee Avenue in Lakeland.

Almost every day until his hospitalization last week, Mr. Peterson walked around a downtown lake. He was an active member of Southside Baptist Church, a block from the house where he was born.

As familiar as his walks around Lake Morton was Mr. Peterson's habit of wearing a rosebud in his lapel.

Mr. Peterson was a civic leader long before he was a political leader. A former scoutmaster, he was a longtime volunteer adviser to boys completing their projects to become Eagle Scouts.

By 1970, he was chairman of the state Agricultural Advisory Council, the Agricultural Tax Council and the Agri-business Institute.

Elected to the Florida Senate in 1972, Mr. Peterson ran for Senate president in 1982 and built a historic coalition of Republicans and Democrats. It was the first time in Florida that a bipartisan coalition elected a Senate president.

"He's one of the few Senate presidents who has cared about education," said Nancy Simmons of Lakeland, who served on the Polk County School Board from 1976 to 1992.

"He was a good friend to education. He did a lot of work on standardizing the diploma throughout the state."

Mr. Peterson sponsored RAISE, or the Raise Achievement in Secondary Education Act. It increased the number of credits needed for graduation to 24 and increased high school math and science requirements. Because students needed more credits to graduate, most Florida high schools went to a seven-period day, although some subsequently dropped the extra period.

"Curtis was one of the leading figures of educational reform," Polk County school Superintendent John Stewart said. "Education was a passion to Curtis. He always sought ways to move it forward.

"He told us it was for his grandchildren," Stewart said.

After his tenure as president ended, he stayed in the Senate six more years to protect the education reforms. But politics was never his whole life. He served on the board of directors for the Polk County Association of Retarded Citizens, was a charter member of the Lakeland Optimist Club and was the first president of Lakeland Little League Baseball. Lakeland's youth baseball complex on Cleveland Heights Boulevard is named in his honor.

Dr. Joy Jackson, an internist at Lakeland's Watson Clinic, said Mr. Peterson had known about an aneurysm in his aorta for about a year. He died about 1 p.m. Friday during surgery to correct the aneurysm. "They couldn't get his heart to restart," Jackson said.

Mr. Peterson was remembered Friday for his leadership, service and his other attributes.

"I remember being in Tallahassee at the height of the legislative session, and it would be absolutely chaos up there," said Polk County Commissioner Marlene Young said. "I would run to his Senate office to seek him out for advice or help on something, and he'd be absolutely serene, on his way down to his garden to cut a rose. I remember thinking, "Gosh, the man knows how to maintain perspective on life.' He could step back on all this and literally take time to smell the roses."

Survivors include his wife, Ethel, two sons and four grandchildren. His son Pete works for the Florida Probation Commission in Tallahassee. His younger son, Newton Curtis Peterson III, is a professor of horticulture at Michigan State University.

The funeral will be Tuesday at Southside Baptist Church in Lakeland.