Peterson estate gives New College $4 million

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Sarasota philanthropists J. Robert “Bob” Peterson and Pasqualina “Lee” Peterson have donated $4 million to New College of Florida through a bequest gift from their estate. It is the largest gift in New College’s 61-year history.

“We are thrilled and humbled by the extraordinary gift from Bob and Lee Peterson, as well as the support of their children,” said New College President Donal O’Shea. “This is a game-changer for New College and will make all the difference in the way that we can support our students.”

The Petersons previously made significant gifts to New College, and the Lee & Bob Peterson Residence Hall on campus is named in their honor. Bob Peterson spent many years serving on the New College Board of Trustees, as he believed in the transformative power of education.

“We were stunned by the Petersons’ generosity. They were known in Sarasota for their incredible philanthropy. Through the Petersons’ foresight, they made a transformational gift to New College, which will serve generations of students in the future,” said MaryAnne Young executive director for the New College Foundation. “It couldn’t have come at a better time, as our students’ needs increase in every regard.  We are so grateful to the whole Peterson family.”

Young said the funds from the gift will likely be used to support New College students, endowment, and other critical elements of the College, as per the wishes of the Peterson family.

“My father was a visionary and a philanthropist who believed in giving back, whether it was to help those with mental illness or to improve the quality of teaching and research,” said Jeffrey Peterson, president of the Lee and Bob Peterson Foundation. “His gift to New College, where he was a member of the board of trustees, exemplifies his philosophy that philanthropy was a requirement of success. He was an extremely passionate and fearless advocate for what he believed in, whether it be education, the arts or mental illness.”

For decades, the Peterson family has been a pillar of philanthropy in the community—a legacy that began when Bob and Lee Peterson first moved to Sarasota in 1993.

Bob Peterson of New Jersey was a Navy veteran of World War II and the Korean War, who spent 33 years with the United Parcel Service (ultimately becoming the senior vice president and general counsel). Lee Peterson was originally from Manhattan and a trained opera singer, who performed with the Amato Opera and After Dinner Opera companies in New York. The two were married for 58 years. Bob Peterson passed away in 2012 at age 88 and Lee Peterson followed in 2017 at age 90.

Together, the Petersons were co-presidents of the Asolo Repertory Theatre. Lee Peterson served on the boards of the Sarasota Opera Association, La Musica Festival and the United Way Foundation. The Petersons founded Sunshine From Darkness, hosting symposiums to increase awareness around mental illness. They also served on the board of National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), which is now the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation.

Jeffrey Peterson continues his parents’ mission of advocating for mental health by reigniting Sunshine From Darkness, which will fund the local nonprofit First Step and its mental health and addiction service and programs (as well as the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, of which he is a board member).

“Bob Peterson had been one of the philanthropic giants in Sarasota,” former New College Board of Trustees President Bob Johnson said when Bob Peterson passed. “There was never a need that I would call him about that I wouldn’t get a check the next day. He and Lee had been unbelievable supporters of New College and the arts and education in Sarasota County.”

Current New College Board of Trustees President Mary Ruiz echoed Johnson’s sentiment.

“As philanthropists, Bob and Lee Peterson were not only generous but also thoughtful in supporting what they believed to be the highest benefit to the community and the world,” Ruiz said. “We are so very grateful, not only for their wonderful gift, but also for their faith in the New College educational philosophy to carry our part of their legacy.”