Milt and Carolyn Peterson in 2018 with Mason performing arts student Crystal Golden, MM ’19, a recipient of scholarship support through the Peterson Endowment in Vocal Arts. Photo by Cable Risdon.
When the history of George Mason University’s first 50 years is written, Milt Peterson and his family will merit a very significant chapter.
Peterson, a real estate developer, philanthropist, and community leader, died May 26 at the age of 85. Since at least the early 1980s, Peterson and his wife, Carolyn, have helped shape the Mason story. Their dedication and philanthropy have directly impacted thousands of students, who have benefited from new classrooms, research facilities, and scholarships.
“George Mason University wouldn’t be what it is today without the leadership of Milt Peterson and his wife, Carolyn,” said Gregory Washington, president of George Mason University. “Their support for the performing arts, for scholarships, and for health sciences has helped bring Mason to the top tier. Their names are honored on our campus, and Milt’s legacy here will live on as long as our university does.”
For decades one of Northern Virginia’s leading real estate developers, Milt Peterson founded Peterson Companies, which has created many major residential developments and more than 30 million square feet of retail, hotel, and office space throughout Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. Some of the company’s best-known projects include Fair Lakes, Burke Center, and National Harbor in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which attracts more than 14 million visitors each year.
Applying his real estate and business acumen to the challenges of a rapidly growing suburban university, Peterson helped guide Mason’s ongoing growth and development in Fairfax, where both his home (just two miles from the Fairfax Campus) and business headquarters (in Fair Lakes) are located.
The family’s name is honored at Mason for their $8 million leadership gift to support the construction of Peterson Family Health Sciences Hall, which opened in 2018 as the new home of the College of Health and Human Services.
That same year the College of Visual and Performing Arts unveiled the Peterson Performing Arts Teaching Center, in the Music/Theater Building, in recognition of Milt and Carolyn’s $2 million commitment for scholarships in the vocal arts and the Peterson Excellence Fund for the Arts.
That was only the latest of the couple’s many gifts for the performing arts. Their $1 million gift in 2006 established music scholarships in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA). And they often chaired or advised committees and arts fundraising events.
The Petersons passed on to their four children (and 10 grandchildren) their passion for Mason, and for philanthropy. Milt’s son Jon Peterson, now the CEO of Peterson Companies, serves on the university Board of Visitors and was previously the vice rector.
As CVPA Dean Rick Davis said at the dedication of the Peterson Performing Arts Teaching Center, “Starting many years ago with Carolyn and Milt, and now continuing with the next generation, this group of wise and generous souls has made it possible for the arts to become established here and to grow in stature and excellence.”
The couple also endowed a scholarship fund in the Volgenau School of Engineering in 2010. Other significant gifts have supported the humanities, athletics, and the Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship in the School of Business.
Peterson received the George Mason Medal, the university’s highest honor, in 2008.
The family’s philanthropy extends far beyond George Mason University. Through the Peterson Family Foundation, which Milt and Carolyn established in 1997, they have given generously to causes including health, cancer research, youth development, and the Methodist Church. Through the foundation, the Petersons have contributed more than $100 million to charity and helped raise millions more.
Peterson, who was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, along with his wife and, later, three of their children. He served as chair of the Board of Trustees and was a generous donor at his alma mater, which is now home to the Peterson Family Athletics Complex.
“Success is defined by the degree to which you realize your potential,” Peterson said in 2017 while speaking to Mason students at an event for the Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship. “That applies to your work, your family, your church. Here at Mason, success should be measured by how the school helps you realize your potential.”
Rob Riordan / June 2, 2021