John Petersen, former CEO for whom Pitt arena is named, dies

Jun 1, 2015, 11:36 AM
A June 24, 2005 photo shows John Petersen at the Cathedral of Learning Society gala at the University of Pittsburgh. Petersen, a retired insurance executive whose gifts to the University of Pittsburgh included $10 million for a basketball arena named for himself and his wife, died Saturday, May 30, 2015 after battling cancer, according to his family. He was 86. (Tony Tye/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP) MAGS OUT; NO SALES; MONESSEN OUT; KITTANNING OUT; CONNELLSVILLE OUT; GREENSBURG OUT; TARENTUM OUT; NORTH HILLS NEWS RECORD OUT; BUTLER OUT
(Tony Tye/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — John Petersen, a retired insurance executive whose gifts to the University of Pittsburgh included $10 million for a basketball arena named for himself and his wife, has died. He was 86.

Petersen died Saturday after battling cancer, university officials and his family said. He and his wife, Gertrude, were living with their daughter in Savannah, Georgia, at the time.

Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg said the gift that helped fund the $119 million John M. and Gertrude E. Petersen Events Center also helped invigorate the campus and was a magnet for other donations. It opened in 2002.

“You can’t really say that there was a cause and effect, but there was a general change in the feeling of the institution that I think did have a role in the generation of that progress,” Nordenberg told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Petersen and his wife also donated money for scholarships, a nanoscience and engineering institute, and an Olympic sports complex at the school. And his daughter, Joan Chalikian, of Savannah, said her father believed in giving back to communities where he lived and worked and, generally, investing in people.

“He always wanted to make sure everyone had the same opportunities he was afforded,” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “His whole focus on life was, ‘What can I do so this group of people can have a chance to succeed?'”

He also donated to Africa 6000, which drills water wells for impoverished African communities.

Petersen graduated from Pitt with a business administration degree in 1951 and worked as an accountant for General Electric Co. before returning to Erie where he grew up. He worked his way up through the ranks of Erie Insurance and retired as president and CEO in 1995 after 33 years.

Funeral arrangements were pending, but a service was expected Saturday in Erie.

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John Petersen, former CEO for whom Pitt arena is named, dies