Bob Peterson: Reflections on a Nurse Leader

January 10, 2021

When one walks into the nursing administrative wing, there is a wall with photos of graduating nurses from McLean Hospital Nursing School. In a photo of one of the last graduating classes, 1966, there is a man with an impish smile and an obvious heart of gold. That man is Bob Peterson, RN, dressed in his graduating whites, standing with the other graduating nurses who one felt they knew through the stories they heard Peterson tell.

During his 50-year career at McLean Hospital, Peterson earned a reputation as a leader. Peterson, who passed away in August, has been remembered by his colleagues for his wisdom, humor, acceptance, and calm demeanor. His lived experience and personal touch have affected every aspect of McLean. Many called him a mentor, recognizing unique traits in individuals and guiding them to and through their next chapters.

Making a Career in Psychiatric Nursing

Peterson’s leadership skills were honed over a long career, during which he saw many changes and advancements in psychiatric care. He incorporated those advances in all aspects of his care, ensuring the best in nursing care. Born in Boston, Peterson served in the U.S. Army before enrolling in the McLean Hospital School of Nursing. After graduating in 1964, he worked the floors on inpatient units, particularly on the psychotic disorder units. From there, Peterson moved to the Nursing Office, where he spent over 30 years. For the last almost two decades of his career, Peterson worked nights as an administrative nursing supervisor.

As a supervisor, Peterson would be one of the first on the hall during an emergency, overseeing the matter and quickly directing staff where needed. Many who worked with Peterson recalled how he had an uncanny tendency to be in the right place at the right time to de-escalate an emergency or intervene with a patient or any other unexpected situation. Peterson made a point of working on collaboration, and he did it with ease.

“An attribute I noticed immediately about Bob when I was a new night nurse on the hall, and have tried to emulate, was how he treated everybody as an equal, staff and patients,” said Anne Kenney, RN, administrative nursing supervisor. “He felt all areas of the operation were just as important as any other in being part of the treatment team. It did not matter what you were doing and what your role was, he embraced everyone and was received back. People looked to him for guidance and support.”

A Man Many Admired

Peterson’s ability to personally connect and befriend people from many areas and departments—whether patients, pharmacy, medicine, facilities, telecommunications, dietary, housekeeping, and nursing—came genuinely. Peterson realized that the best way for a campus to run safely and effectively was as a team. By working together, incorporating and sharing the latest in research, they could provide the best care for the patient. And he had stories to back it up.

His infectious humor and penchant for tricks, the smile that can be seen in so many photos, and his sense of history and storytelling about McLean made people feel so connected to him. He had a detailed memory for so much that transpired at McLean. When you would walk the grounds or the halls with him, each corner and every mantle had a tale. Each person he remembered, he recalled special qualities that made them unique and their story rich. And most had a lesson.

Bob Peterson, RN
Bob Peterson, RN

His style of teaching was by example. Never one for formalities and appearing a bit at odds in the role as “the authority,” he led by gentle guiding, telling a story to illustrate a point or cracking a joke to let you learn from your error or to ease tension during a difficult interaction.

Kenney worked with Peterson, sometimes filling in for the nursing supervisors at night and replacing him when he retired. She remembers the first night she trained with Peterson in the office. “He did his job, and I followed him around. It was implied ‘come follow me and see what happens,’” she explained. “Initially, my head was spinning. But he just did his job with me in tow, demonstrating how it was done, and eventually, I was able to get it.” Kenney said that Peterson “let you learn as you went. He would have you get involved in a situation with him on the sideline, offering subtle interactions and advice or stepping in when needed versus giving more formalized instructions or teaching you beforehand,” she said.

Peterson’s Legacy

With Kenney and countless others, Peterson drew on his skills and years of experience to offer advice. “He did it in a very encouraging, non-judgmental manner. He had the innate ability to recognize individuals’ own style and strengths—knowing it added to the depth of benefit both patients and employees developed. And he nurtured that,” Kenney recalled.

Peterson excelled as a nurse and administrator, but his supportive, caring personality was every bit as important as his professional skills. Kenney said that Peterson’s “deep and detailed knowledge of McLean and the ability to share those many illustrious accounts gave the respect of experience earned.”

“His enjoyment of sharing and being involved with others was surpassed only by his caring for his family and how very proud of his grandchildren he was,” Kenney said.

Ultimately, Peterson’s legacy as a nurse leader rests on his years of compassionate care, devotion to McLean patients and staff, and his thoughtful, humble manner. “He made his mark, including everyone as if they were very much a part of the team,” Kenney recalled. “He treated everyone as if they were important—and believed they were,” affecting the unique experience that is McLean Hospital for years to come.

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