Despite his small stature, Dennis Peters had a roaring voice that filled lecture halls. He leapt up from chairs in the graduate chemistry advising office and wowed children and adults alike with flashes of colors and bright fires during Magic of Chemistry programs, clad in a colorful lab coat decorated with chemical illustrations, mathematical formulas and equations.
Peters, an IU chemistry professor, died Monday after contracting COVID-19 while being hospitalized for an injury that occurred during spring break. He was 82 and died a few days shy of his birthday, according to the IU Chemistry Department’s obituary.
He was born in 1937 in Eagle Rock, California, and graduated from California Institute of Technology with a bachelor's of science and got his doctorate at Harvard University. He has been teaching since 1962, according to the obituary. Peters won a number of local and national awards, such as the Herman T. Briscoe Professorship and Chemical Manufacturers Association National Catalyst Award.
Friends and colleagues alike said though he never had kids, his family was the graduate students he advised and colleagues he adored.
IU graduate student Amir Hosseini hasn’t seen his family in five years. Hosseini said Peters, his graduate adviser, helped fill that void and became like his family in the United States.
“You don’t need to be family by blood to love someone,” he said.
Hosseini said his biggest regret is that he can’t tell Peters how much he meant to him.
“I wish I could’ve told him how much he meant to me, as a supervisor, as a family member,” he said.
Chemistry graduate program coordinator Dalane Anderson said Peters would frequently organize Wine Wednesdays with the graduate students and invite office staff, where everyone would nurse a glass of wine while talking about their personal lives. She said Peters made the office come alive, joking about trips to Hawaii and his love of chemistry.
“He has the sweetest spirit about himself,” Anderson said.
Michael Samide, one of Peters’ past graduate students and a professor at Butler University, said he credits Peters for his teaching style and said the way he engages with students is shaped by his former adviser. He recalled Peters would never criticize students if they needed help doing research and would help undergraduate and graduate students alike. He would take students out to dinner to celebrate milestones in their careers and frequently had them over to his house for meals.
The experiments Peters would put on for different schools to entice children with science were always impressive and chaotic, Samide said. He said a fan favorite was color-changing chemical solutions which would change color to the tune of the Lone Ranger theme song. Another involved creating a fire that spread across the lab table Peters worked at, eliciting gasps from the audience.
Ana Couto Petro, one of Peters’ graduate students at IU, said he made her more confident in her work. English isn’t her native language, so she delivered drafts of papers and presentations in installments. She said he truly enjoyed helping her.
“His caring for others, both personally and professionally, was something special,” Couto Petro said. “The world is missing someone this week.”
Peters would always crack jokes with his students and help them prepare to defend their research in front of the panel, Couto Petro said. If students needed assistance, his office was always open, and he would drop whatever he was doing to listen.
Lee Klein, another graduate student who worked under Peters and completed his doctorate in 2001, said he remembers the professor’s craftsmanship with words. Peters would tear papers and drafts apart, rebuilding them and making the writing better. However, he never made students feel small and always invested time into them, Klein said.
A common way Peters would check in with students was through IU sports. He frequently took students to football and basketball games, cheering on the home team and bonding with his graduate pupils.
“He was up out of his chair and shouting wildly and cheering them on,” Klein said. “He turned into a different person. He really got into it.”
Ben Gerroll, part of Peters graduate advising group, said the professor was like a father to him. He said the worst thing one of his students could hear was that Peters was disappointed in them and Peters had the perfect balance of hands-off management, yet nurturing and encouraging of all research ideas or topics.
“There’s a void in the world now that I’m not sure can be filled,” he said
Many of Peters' current and former students and colleagues agreed he would be someone the world couldn’t replace.
“A light as bright as his doesn’t shine without lighting others around him,” Gerroll said. “There’s just so many sides to this magnificent man. We could talk for days, and we wouldn’t be able to encompass a small amount of who he is and what he was."
Peters is survived by his nephew Ruben Portugues, who lives in Germany, and by his niece Iliana Portugues who lives in the United Kingdom.