You could say that Gerald “Jerry” Petersen earned his master’s degree in marketing from BYU because he loved to sing.
You also could say that he was the first person in BYU’s history to earn a graduate business degree, and his studies were the impetus for BYU Marriott’s modern-day MBA program.
There are a lot of things you could say about Petersen. He’s been a successful insurance sales manager, mountain climber, artifact hunter, world traveler, and 90-year-old competitive runner. But perhaps the most notable thing about Petersen is not what other people say about him but what he can say for himself: when he sets his sights on what he wants, he doesn’t shy away from making things happen.
Struck a Chord
Twenty-year-old Petersen was awakened one morning by Elder Ray Andrus and Andrus’s missionary companion. They had stopped by Petersen’s house in Lincoln, Nebraska, coaxing him out of bed with an invitation to a performance by the BYU A Cappella Choir.
It was 1954, and as Petersen listened to the choir with the missionaries, the sound resonated with him. “Something vibrated in my soul,” he says. “I nudged Elder Andrus, who had sung in the choir before his mission, and whispered, ‘I’m going to transfer to BYU and sing in that choir.’”
Andrus replied, “Those are the best singers in the school. You’ll never get in.”
Petersen, who had grown up in the Church but never considered attending BYU, was slated to begin his senior year at the University of Nebraska that fall, where he had been part of the gymnastics team. Instead, he drove to Provo, paid the registration office $60 for tuition, selected marketing as his major, and officially became one of BYU’s 7,213 students under the stewardship of President Ernest L. Wilkinson. “When I went to my first assembly in the fieldhouse, we began to sing a hymn,” Petersen recalls. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was like being home.”
His first item of business was joining the A Cappella Choir that he’d found so captivating. But after Petersen auditioned by singing a verse of “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet”—his first-ever solo—conductor Newell Weight said, “I’m sorry, but you’re not good enough.”
“How can I get good enough?” Petersen responded.
Weight offered Petersen a spot in a preparatory choir as well as private voice lessons. By the end of the school year, Weight pronounced Petersen ready for the A Cappella Choir. The only hitch? Petersen was graduating and had been accepted into a master’s program in retailing at New York University.
Petersen, determined to be part of the choir, set up a meeting with Weldon J. Taylor, chair of the marketing department, and asked about a master’s degree in business. “We don’t have one,” Taylor replied, “but we really ought to.”
That was music to Petersen’s ears. They met again, and Taylor created a two-year curriculum that also required a thesis. “He was serious about this; it was not going to be a flash in the pan,” Petersen says. “I was so grateful it worked out because I wanted two more years to sing in the choir.”
Petersen’s years as a graduate student were far from glamorous. He worked as a janitor for 80 cents an hour to put himself through school and took business classes in military barracks that were dubbed the North Building. “They were hot in the summer and cold in the winter,” Petersen says.
After finishing the pilot program, Petersen graduated in 1957 as the solo master’s degree recipient. His thesis focused on students’ clothes-buying habits. Four years later, BYU’s College of Business—with Taylor as the inaugural dean—officially began the MBA program; the 15 students who composed the first MBA class graduated in 1963—this time, a thesis was optional.
Hymn and Her
Upon graduating, Petersen began working as assistant sales manager at Pacific States Cast Iron Pipe Company in Provo. He wanted to keep singing and secured a spot in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, eventually spending 25 years as a second tenor and writing a firsthand commemorative book on the group, More Than Music. After five years with Pacific States, which included a transfer to Portland, Oregon, Petersen craved a change. He quit his job and spent the next five and a half months traveling with his friend Bryan Critser.
“We took freight trains from Salt Lake City to San Francisco and then sailed around the world, spending most of our time in Europe,” Petersen says. “I grew a beard, climbed the Matterhorn, and bought a scooter in Paris—all for $1,200.”
Petersen—who turned 30 in Paris—and Critser returned home and decided on their next adventure: finding wives. “I was miserably lonely and felt like I was never going to find the right girl,” Petersen says.
Provo was an appealing place to reside because of its large dating pool and also because Petersen’s parents had moved there from Nebraska. Petersen rejoined the Tabernacle Choir and secured a part-time job as he searched for something more permanent. On the first day of BYU summer school, he and Critser were driving around, scoping things out, when they noticed two girls walking down 800 East. Petersen circled around and offered them a ride downtown.
“After going around the world, we were not afraid of anything; we were so confident about life,” he says. “And when I saw Elaine’s face, I fell in love with it.”
But by the end of the drive, so had Critser.
“We made a pact: whoever got the first date, the other would back off,” Petersen says.
Critser had to work that night, June 15, 1964, and there was a welcome dance in the brand-new Wilkinson Student Center. “I figured
Elaine would be there, and she was,” Petersen says. Students were supposed to change partners after each dance, but “a BYU hotshot with a fancy letterman jacket had Elaine, and he was not letting her dance with anyone else,” Petersen says. “She was the most outstandingly pretty girl there, and he was not going to give her up.”
Discouraged, Petersen walked upstairs to a balcony that overlooked the dance. But after a few minutes of wallowing in self-pity, he began to give himself a pep talk: “I betcha he hasn’t bummed around the world,” he thought. “I betcha he hasn’t climbed the Matterhorn. I betcha he hasn’t even gotten his bachelor’s degree.”
Petersen returned to the dance with renewed confidence, walked to the middle of the floor, and approached the guy hogging Elaine’s time. “You’ve had her long enough,” Petersen recalls saying. “And then I had her for the next 52 years,” he adds.
Despite an 11-year age difference, the two became engaged on the last day of summer school and married the following November. “Getting her to fall in love with me was the best sales job I ever did,” Petersen says.
Finding His Forte
The happy couple had $27 in the bank and was living with Petersen’s parents when Petersen responded to a help wanted newspaper ad for Nationwide Insurance, which was expanding west. He landed the job, starting as Utah sales manager in January 1965, and stayed with the organization until he retired in 1995 as a district sales manager overseeing 13 states.
Early in his tenure, Nationwide was experimenting with selling car insurance without agents, which saved customers commission costs. “It happens all the time now, but I opened it in Utah,” Petersen says. “We had thousands of policies and grew like mad.”
Petersen, who wrote a book on the insurance industry in 1975, grew his office staff to 25 agents, who became close friends. His secret to a happy office? Ensuring that all agents approved of potential new hires. “They each got to sit with interviewees one-on-one for a few minutes, and if they gave a thumbs-up, the person was hired,” he says. Initially, Petersen had had trouble with employees quitting, but after implementing this system, his staff “had the lowest turnover record in the entire company,” he notes.
The employees’ camaraderie grew even more when Nationwide’s regional sales president allocated $20,000 to Petersen’s office for community service, which turned into an initiative to help a low-income school.
The group oversaw the installation of a new water fountain and new doors—per the students’ request—and updates to the elementary school’s bathrooms. Petersen’s employees also spent time organizing a basketball team and an accompanying cheerleading squad as well as mentoring the youth in other life skills.
Soon Petersen was heading up a committee to help expand the project to all the schools in Salt Lake City’s Granite School District, which resulted in 90 businesses adopting 90 schools. The program, called Invest in Futures, became Petersen’s swan song for the two years before he retired in 1995 and remained his passion for the eight years following.
“It was the most exciting time,” he says. “It was a morale boost to my employees, and the principal told me she noticed improvement in the morale of her school. You could see the excitement in the kids’ eyes when we would do something for them.”
Petersen was good at running an office and running Invest in Futures, but his running skills didn’t end there. At age 55, Petersen entered the Huntsman Senior Games in St. George, Utah, on a whim and came in second behind a national collegiate record-holder. “I’d never run a race; I had no idea whether I was fast or not,” he says. “I realized I loved it and was good at running short distances.”
Petersen has accumulated more than two dozen medals over the years. Most recently, he won first place in his division in the 100-meter dash at the 2023 Larry H. Miller Utah Summer Games in Cedar City, Utah. “I can hardly walk now because I have neuropathy,” he says, “but I can jog.”
Petersen also developed a keen interest in collecting other metals. What started as a search for an antique ox shoe turned into a 40-year hobby. “All my ancestors were pioneers. A friend and I bought metal detectors and went out on the Mormon Trail, and we’d search abandoned railroad beds. We found items from every era of the West: pioneer, stagecoach, Pony Express, army, telegraph, American Indian. You name it—we found it,” says Petersen, who estimates he collected hundreds of items throughout Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.
“It was their garbage, but it was our treasure. We made our wives very angry at us,” he jokes. “Instead of being home fixing things on Saturdays, we’d be out metal detecting.”
The outdoors has always called to Petersen, who was also an avid mountain climber. “When I was a kid, we would visit Salt Lake City yearly, and I would head to the mountains. They fascinated me because I grew up in flat Nebraska,” says Petersen, who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro when he was in his 60s in addition to scaling Mount Timpanogos, Mount Hood, Grand Teton, Mount Moran, and most of the peaks in Big Cottonwood Canyon throughout his life.
When Petersen reflects on his life—the highs, the lows, and everything in between—he acknowledges that Elder Andrus’s invitation in 1954 was the most pivotal moment. “Everything good has come from Ray getting me out of bed that morning,” he says.
The two became lifelong friends, singing in the Tabernacle Choir together and embarking on spontaneous road trips and entrepreneurial ventures. Andrus, who served as an assistant dean at BYU Marriott from 1976 to 1981 and associate dean from 1981 to 1983, remembers that Petersen called when he began dating Elaine, proclaiming, “I think I met the girl I’m going to marry.”
When Elaine died in 2017 from liver cancer, exactly one month after doctors gave her the diagnosis, Petersen was devastated. The couple had raised 5 children, doted on 15 grandchildren, and sailed on more than 30 cruises together. “Elaine was such a perfect match for him,” Andrus says. “He was so proud of her and so in love.”
Petersen is grateful for BYU’s part in his love story and for his experiences on campus that helped him compose a successful career and a positive outlook. “He was determined to make something out of himself, and BYU offered him opportunities in many ways,” Andrus echoes. “He went all out when he did something and worked hard to earn his well-deserved accomplishments.”
Petersen says that before BYU he had no long-term ambitions. “I was a timid person, and that didn’t change until I set the goal to join the A Cappella Choir. It gave me an incentive, and after that I had confidence for the rest of my life,” he recalls. “I have a philosophy of ‘doubling your rate of failure,’ which means if you fail, then keep trying and failing until you finally succeed. Doubling your rate of failure increases your chance of success. Life is better when you go for your goals.”
Written by Emily Edmonds
Photography by Bradley Slade
About the Author
Emily Edmonds is a former editor of Marriott Alumni Magazine. She earned her MA in mass communications from BYU and wrote her thesis on tweens’ television usage.