Rest in Peace, Dr. Bill Peterson

I am deeply saddened to report that Saturday night, Dr. Julian “Bill” Peterson, District 14’s City Plan Commissioner and dear friend, passed away peacefully in his sleep at his home, after a battle with cancer.

Bill’s death is a great loss for anyone who was privileged to know him. We’ve lost a terrific neighborhood advocate, a tireless community volunteer, and a good, kind man. He is survived by his wife, P. Jay, and children and grandkids.

I visited Bill a couple of weeks ago in his hospital room at Zale Lipshy. At the time, there was a glimmer of hope that the cancer might be slowed again with some aggressive chemotherapy. The prognosis was still dire, though, counting his remaining time in months not weeks. Despite this, Bill wanted to discuss several upcoming District 14 zoning cases and finding a replacement for him on the Plan Commission. I told Bill we didn’t need to worry about that, that he just needed to get better, but he insisted – it’s what he cared about and wanted to take care of even as he lay in a hospital bed tied to an IV.

That was Bill.

I got to know him when we worked together for months preparing for a citywide graffiti clean up in spring 2006. He was a community volunteer who had worked to clean up neighborhoods and coordinate crime watch programs.

What struck me most about Bill was how thorough he was in his preparation for the clean up. He was documenting locations for clean ups across the city, and to say he was organized and thorough is a gross understatement. He had digital photos. He had interactive maps. He had a complex Excel spreadsheet with matching paint colors, property addresses, square footage, property owner names and contact info….you get the picture. As someone who also suffers from anal retentiveness, I was in awe. His hard work helped make that event one of the most successful the city has done.

I later learned that Bill was a biochemistry professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center, and that he was a very thoughtful, logical thinker. Sometimes people that smart and logical can come across as condescending, but not Bill. He was such a pleasure to work with, always listening and really thinking through others’ points of view, justifying his own positions with reason, and unafraid to change his mind when the evidence persuaded him. And he had a wonderfully dry sense of humor.

His heart was dedicated to making Dallas better. Not long after the graffiti clean up, I appointed him to represent District 14 on the Senior Affairs Commission. He did a great job, and when we had an opening on the Plan Commission, Bill asked to be considered. It’s a coveted, powerful volunteer appointment that is also a big commitment. Since Bill hadn’t really been active on zoning cases up to that point, I needed some persuading. And persuade he did. After meeting with several candidates, it was clear Bill was totally committed to the job and prepared to learn what he didn’t know.

After his appointment, Bill devoured District 14’s many complex planned development district ordinances, as well as our many historic and conservation district requirements. He reached out to the Oak Lawn Committee, a community group that evaluates zoning cases in the Oak Lawn area; his attendance at and contributions to their monthly meetings won him the group’s respect and admiration. He met with city staff regularly to understand the reasoning behind their zoning recommendations. He developed good relationships with the other plan commissioners and worked well with them. When difficult zoning cases arose (as they always do in District 14), Bill brought developers together with neighborhood groups to try to find middle ground. He understood the power of compromise but was also unafraid to tell developers “no” when that was the right thing to do for the surrounding neighborhood.

Bill didn’t do any of this for accolades or pats on the back. He didn’t do it to see his name in the paper or get credit for his work. He just wanted to make Dallas better, and that’s exactly what he did.

When he was appointed to the Plan Commission in 2009, Bill told the Dallas Observer that he wasn’t interested in the spotlight and had no desire to be quoted. “If at the end of my term on the plan commission, people say, ‘Oh, Peterson was a good guy, did his job, did his work and helped make things happen,’ that wouldn’t make me unhappy at all.”

We say all that and much more, Bill. Thank you, for everything. We were so very fortunate to know you. We will miss you, my friend.