Robert Peterson, 82; Educator Founded Academic Decathlon

Times Staff Writer

Robert Peterson, who during 24 years as Orange County schools superintendent founded the Academic Decathlon, which challenges the mental mettle of tens of thousands of students worldwide each year, has died. He was 82.

Peterson died Monday in his hometown of Matthews, N.C., of a brain aneurysm, said his wife, Kitty.

Peterson, who retired as county superintendent in 1990, profoundly affected students when he created the Academic Decathlon in 1968, educators said.

He envisioned a new kind of competition that would give students of different achievement levels a chance to shine. Other academic contests, he said, rewarded only top-level students who didn’t need the motivation.

Peterson’s remedy was to require decathlon teams to include B and C students along with A students for the 10-event contest, which includes math, art and speech.


The program gives A students the chance to show their strengths and B students the chance to improve, but most important, it has the power to change C students’ lives, said Marvin Cobb, executive director of the California Academic Decathlon.

“He recognized that these diamonds in the rough needed something to make going to school worthwhile,” Cobb said.

Through his tenaciousness, Peterson created a program that grew from one high school in Garden Grove to more that 2,200 worldwide, said current Orange County Supt. of Schools William M. Habermehl, who worked under Peterson.

“Often when somebody retires or leaves, you see a lot of their programs collapse,” Habermehl said. “He put the decathlon together in a way that it will live a life of its own forever.”

Long in frail health, Peterson traveled to Erie, Pa., last month for the national decathlon finals for the first time in seven years. While there, students lined up with their parents for photos and autographs with Peterson, which his wife said overwhelmed him.

“He just seemed to bloom with their exuberance,” she said.

“Their love for learning was so exciting to him.”

Married for 57 years, the couple met when she was in high school and he was stationed at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver. Charmed by his Southern manners, she decided to marry him after he returned from a stint as a B-17 pilot during World War II.

Peterson started his educational career in 1955 as a teacher in Santa Ana and was a principal in the same district before running for county superintendent.

After retiring, he taught night school teaching classes at local colleges, then moved so he and his wife could be closer to their daughter, Caydea Coobs, of Indian Trail, N.C.

Peterson also is survived by his son, Robert, of Herlong, Calif., two granddaughters, a grandson and a great-grandson.