Life Story / Obituary
Civic leader, entrepreneur, marina proprietor, R.J. Peterson was an omnipresent figure in the Saugatuck-Douglas community. Early Tuesday, Aug. 11, Peterson, 93, passed away peacefully at his home in Saugatuck.
Born December 31, 1926 in Gary, Indiana, Roland “R.J.” Peterson was the son of the late Rolland “R.E.” and Mildred Peterson. Growing up in the Miller Beach area during the Great Depression, he quickly took a love for water recreation. His family began to visit Saugatuck, Michigan by boat during the late 1930’s.
Peterson graduated from William A. Wirt High School in Miller Beach at the outbreak of the Second World War and was selected to participate in an elite and rigorous Naval radar training program at Treasure Island, CA. After the war, Peterson matriculated at Purdue University to study mechanical engineering.
Early manufacturing ventures with his father led in 1954 to the design and production of the River Queen, the first all-steel house boat, which had sales nationwide and in numerous foreign countries. In 1965, Peterson revived the historic Saugatuck Chain Ferry. In 1967, Peterson saved the S.S. Keewatin, built five years before the Titanic and one of the last remaining Edwardian Great Lakes Steamships, from being sent to the scrapyard and turned it to a maritime museum before its return to Canada in 2012.
Peterson was active in numerous local civic projects such as fundraising for the Douglas Hospital and the Harbors Health Facility. He served as the president of the Saugatuck-Douglas Chamber of Commerce and was appointed by Gov. Rick Synder to the Michigan Waterways Commission. Peterson recently was inducted in the Michigan Boating Industries Association’s Hall of Fame. Always involved in local politics, Peterson was passionate to see a consolidation of the Saugatuck and Douglas communities as well as a sustainable future for the Kalamazoo Harbor.
He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Diane Peterson; his son, Matt Peterson and his wife Cindy of Saugatuck; his three granddaughters, Madeline Peterson of Washington, D.C.; Hannah Peterson of Austin, TX; and Grace Peterson of Chicago, IL. He is also survived by sister, Ann Koehler and husband Don of Dune Acres, IN; and brother Erik Peterson of Saugatuck.
A public celebration of R.J.’s life will be planned once large public gatherings are permitted and safe to attend.
R.J.’s obituary was written by his three granddaughters; Madeline Peterson, Hannah Peterson, and Grace Peterson.
Arrangements are by the Dykstra Funeral Home-Saugatuck Chapel.