Similar to counting candles on a birthday cake, Karen Peterson proudly counts the number of Homecoming Weekends she has celebrated while leading the Wisconsin Medical Alumni Association (WMAA) — 21 as of October 2021 and 38 total while working in the health sciences at University of Wisconsin-Madison. This particular Homecoming, however, marks a new type of observance: her retirement.

“I have absolutely loved working for the WMAA and the UW School of Medicine and Public Health,” says Peterson, who has served as the association’s executive director and the school’s assistant dean for alumni and external relations since 2000. “I had hoped we would be able to gather in person for the WMAA’s traditional fall class reunions and Homecoming Tailgate Party— as this will be my last before I retire—but due to COVID-19, we need to celebrate reunions virtually. And, unfortunately, it’s hard to hold a tailgate event online.”

Nonetheless, Peterson will be cheering with gusto at the Homecoming football game. Ironically, the UW Badgers will face off against her college alma mater, the University of Iowa Hawkeyes, that day.

Karen Peterson portrait
Karen Peterson

A native of the small, rural town of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, Peterson says her mom was an elementary school teacher, and her dad served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and had a subsequent career in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“My parents were products of the Great Depression,” she notes. “They encouraged my two older siblings and me to work hard, save our money and value what we have. Above all, a sense of family was very important, and we all supported each other.”

Peterson recalls many events of the 1960s, including the Civil Rights Movement, and says, “My parents were always willing to talk about current events, and they were dedicated to helping people in need, an attitude that shaped who I am today.”

While earning her business degree with an emphasis in finance at the University of Iowa, Peterson married Don Peterson, a former high school classmate who grew up on a farm near Mt. Pleasant. A visit to Madison, including the UW Memorial Union Terrace, made a strong impression on the young couple.

“My husband received a job offer in Madison and established his electrical engineering career here at Madison Gas and Electric,” says Peterson, adding that they bought their current home near campus 39 years ago. “We love everything about Madison. It’s been such a great place to raise our two daughters.”

The Petersons’ first daughter, Maddy, earned a nursing degree from UW-Madison and is working as an intensive care nurse on the front lines of the pandemic in Austin, Texas. Their second daughter, Isabelle, is completing a dual degree in elementary and special education at UW-Oshkosh; she will student-teach in the spring.

“When Don and I moved to Madison in spring 1982, my business degree helped me get my first job in the business office of the UW School of Nursing, where I worked with faculty members to help them obtain and manage grants. I later became the director of that school’s research office,” says Peterson.

Recalling another pivotal move into a new alumni relations position at the UW School of Nursing, Peterson describes, “It felt like I found my niche. Among other things, I was proud to establish and run a golf outing to raise money for scholarships.”

In 2000, the opportunity to enter her current role with the WMAA led to two decades of managing the program that fosters close relationships among the school, its medical alumni and medical students, with the goal of promoting alumni participation in and support of the school.

“Drs. Philip Farrell and Harvey Wichman hired me,” says Peterson. “At that time, Dr. Farrell was the School of Medicine and Public Health dean, and Dr. Wichman was the WMAA president.”

Dean Emeritus Philip Farrell, MD, PhD (PG ’72), reflects, “I expected good things from Karen, but I have been absolutely overwhelmed at what she has been able to accomplish.”

School of Medicine and Public Health Dean Robert N. Golden, MD, agrees, noting, “Karen has been absolutely spectacular as a leader, as a partner and as a friend. Everyone with whom she interacts knows how dedicated she is and how hard she works to support medical students, build and support connections with our alumni and donors, and oversee many types of events, as well as Quarterly magazine.”

Says Peterson, “I love bringing people together and seeing them have a great time reminiscing and giving back to the school in so many ways. We’ve had such great Homecoming Weekends, Alumni Weekends, and other alumni events in Milwaukee, at Lambeau Field and all around the country.”

“I’m particularly proud that the WMAA staff and I start working with students the day they enter the school, from their White Coat Ceremony to graduation. We try to make them feel like alumni right away, and we help build a culture of philanthropy and gratitude, for instance by helping them establish class funds,” states Peterson. “We are seeing the fruits of our labor with young alumni who are giving back to the school.”

She adds that several former student leaders are serving on the WMAA Board of Directors.

“They have come full circle. They graduated from the School of Medicine and Public Health, went out and established their careers, and now they are alumni leaders. That has been a huge success,” says Peterson.

“I have worked hard to build a board that is diverse in age, number of women and men, specialty interest and ethnicity. There’s room to grow in the latter, but we have made progress. Our board members are some of the school’s greatest advocates,” she states, as she describes additional points of pride.

“All of our WMAA staff members have been very engaging with alumni, but my current staff and I have emphasized our work with students in the last 10 years,” she says.

For instance, Peterson and her team have developed several programs, including the Student Alumni Partnership Program (SAPP) for medical students to connect with MD alumni. SAPP has grown to more than 1,000 alumni who are committed to helping students, including with career exploration. Peterson also shares gratitude for major support from the WMAA Board of Directors and her team to create the Stethoscope Program, through which donors fund the meaningful gift of a stethoscope for each new medical student.

Reflecting further, Peterson shares, “My favorite memory is when (former) Dean Philip Farrell and I co-hosted a cruise on the Rhine River from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. I am still friends with many of the people who went on that cruise.”

Co-sponsored by the WMAA and the Wisconsin Alumni Association, the 2006 cruise was a celebration of the WMAA’s 50th anniversary and the school’s upcoming centennial, she says.

On the national scene, Peterson shared her expertise by serving a term as the vice chair of alumni and development, and later as chair of the steering committee for the Association of American Medical Colleges Group on Institutional Advancement (GIA), in which she has participated for much of her career. The 700-member GIA is the only national professional development group devoted exclusively to the role of institutional advancement in academic medicine.

“A challenging thing for every alumni director across the country is how to keep alumni and students engaged when we cannot gather in person during the pandemic,” says Peterson. “The virtual world is challenging, as some people have developed Zoom fatigue and others simply do not embrace online technology.”

She continues, “The WMAA staff and I have worked very hard to come up with creative ideas, and we have been able to engage more alumni virtually than we usually do in person because they can participate from anywhere in the world without traveling. For instance, two people from Israel joined a recent reunion. This factor is a silver lining during the pandemic.”

When asked about her upcoming retirement, Peterson quickly responds, “I look forward to spending more time at our lake home in the Northwoods, enjoying nature. And when it’s safe to do so, I hope to travel—I have a long list of places I want to go. I also have a lot of hobbies, including doing yoga, bicycling, sewing, flower gardening, and playing the piano and percussion instruments. I play in a bell choir, which was on hold due to COVID-19, but we are starting up in person this fall, and I’m looking forward to that.”

A Middleton Society Member with her husband, who also plans to retire soon, Peterson established a new scholarship, the Karen S. Peterson/WMAA Medical Student Scholarship.

“I want to help support students with financial need and help the school meet its greatest needs. I feel strongly about scholarships because medical students graduate with incredible debt, and anything we can do to help alleviate that is a good thing,” she says.

Karen Peterson and Sarah Rothschild portrait
The Wisconsin Medical Alumni Association and University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health community celebrate two decades of leadership by Karen Peterson (left), who is retiring. Sarah Rothschild (right) will become the new WMAA executive director.

While preparing to pass the proverbial baton to the new WMAA executive director, Sarah Rothschild (see sidebar article), Peterson is grateful that the two have had time to interact. She notes that Rothschild has many creative ideas and much experience, including with in-person and virtual events.

“Sarah will inherit a rock star team with our small but mighty WMAA staff and advancement group,” notes Peterson.

Golden concludes, “The entire School of Medicine and Public Health community wishes Karen the very best in her retirement, and we know Sarah will continue to build on the incredible foundation that Karen and her team have established.”

By Kris Whitman
This article appears in Quarterly magazine.