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Peter Whitney, beloved father and grandfather, died at home in his sleep on July 12 in Bantam, CT. He was 79. Growing up in Berkeley, CA, Peter’s parents, Jim and Deborah, were founding members of Grassroots Democrats of Berkeley. A Jungian psychoanalyst, Jim ran for State Assembly and City Council but lost both. His Fair Housing Ordinance to desegregate city housing also lost, but became the model for the “Rumford Act,” approved by California and becoming the nation’s first fair housing law. Peter attended Thacher School in Ojai, CA, where he was captain of the basketball team and set the career scoring record. After graduating, Peter worked as a river guide on whitewater trips with the Sierra Club. On a trip in 1961, his guiding blunder led to the naming of “Ham Rapids,” one of the Selway River in Idaho’s most treacherous runs. The name is derived from the ham that was flung from the capsized raft. As a Yale legacy student at the dawn of the Vietnam war, Peter questioned his privilege and looked askance upon those he called “Big Shots,” including his college master, John Hersey, author of Hiroshima, whose work later informed Peter’s pacifism. Admiring social realist photographers like Dorothea Lange, Peter was drawn to study photography, taking a class with Walker Evans. He met his first wife, Victoria MacCarthy, in the Yale dining hall. Though not enrolled (Yale was all male), Tori trained with enrolled theater students and remembers her director saying, “the only one worth a damn is Whit.” On their first date, Peter stopped at the hospital to check on a friend, an act of kindness that went a long way in winning Tori’s heart. After Peter’s father died suddenly at 49 during his senior year, Peter recalls feeling lost.
Mescalero to the Bay AreaUpon graduating, the couple joined Vista and volunteered on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in southern New Mexico from 1967 to 1969. After two decades of the government defunding tribes, the poverty that American Indian Movement (AIM) activists grappled with demoralized the couple. Tori taught in the Mescalero school, while Peter worked in the recreation center. influenced by an Apache colleague in the Mescalero school named Rufina Marie Laws, Tori traveled to nearby libraries to find books for her students that depicted powerful Apache and other American Indian leaders. Peter attempted to capture on film the institutional poverty alongside the resilience of tribal members he befriended, like Rufina. (His photographs from Mescalero were lost.) The couple moved to Santa Fe, where Tori worked for Theater of the Street, using Native actors to depict unfair government treatment of Apaches and other Natives. Peter and Tori married in New Mexico, crossing the border to Ciudad Juarez for their honeymoon. From his hospital bed fifty-five years later, he was wistful for the home run he hit playing with the Apache baseball team. When asked why, he said, tearfully, “Because I felt like I was one of them.”
Returning to the Bay Area, Peter took a workshop with Ansel Adams in Atherton, CA. Peter’s first two sons, Jake and Ben, were born in Berkeley in 1969 and 1971, respectively. The couple moved east in 1972, to Washington, CT, where Joel was born, and divorced two years later. Peter moved to Lake Waramaug near New Preston, CT, and married his second wife, Bernice Broadbrook, after the two shared a pitcher of beer at the Marbledale Pub. They had Delia in 1977.
Desegregating Berkeley Schools & A Visit from Bible Students
During the 1970s, Peter published two books of photography in the social realist mode: The Buses Roll (1974, Norton), about the 1968 desegregation of Berkeley Schools, which featured the school Kamala Harris later attended; and Beyond Our Control, (1976, River Run Press), documenting the corporate takeover of small-town America, with text by Tom Engelhardt. Of her unconventional childhood, Delia recalls being told of a cross-country trip when she was a baby. Leaving the lakeside commune where they lived simply, with few modern comforts, the trio drove west until the Volkswagen bus broke down in a small Texas town. The three were “stuck for weeks in this dusty town waiting for a new engine that dad quickly swapped out in the dirt before we continued west.” Peter and Bernice divorced around 1981.
Prodded by disillusionment over the Vietnam War and the murders of activist Martin Luther King, Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Peter joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses, after members knocked on his door–first in Oakland while still married to Tori, then in Connecticut. The Witnesses assured Peter of the group’s pacifism, saying, “We never fight.”
During his time as a Witness, Peter married a third time, to Cindy Huff, and became stepfather to Tara and T.J. The couple were later separated. He worked for United Water, from which he retired around 2010. With retirement he committed to knocking on doors fulltime as a Pioneer for Jehovah’s Witnesses. As a Witness, Peter began to take his fatherhood responsibilities more seriously and was increasingly involved in his children’s lives.
He was the consummate listener, a soft-spoken supporter of all he met. Inherently shy, he was too humble to talk of himself, his family members recall. Having survived the first of two strokes in 2017 and growing hard of hearing, he would lean his neck forward in conversation, reducing his height and cupping his good ear, remaining hesitant to raise his voice while smiling with his eyes. Nevertheless, religious discussions would verge on arguments.
Peter enjoyed visiting his sister Kathleen in Berkeley, CA and his brother Nick in Inverness, where the three shared a family cabin in the area called Sea Haven. During the Covid pandemic, Peter’s difficulty hearing prompted him to share his conversion story with distant relatives and old friends by post rather than making phone calls.
These letters turned up lost second and third cousins and earned a response from Rufina in Mescalero–who, by telephone, told Peter on his sickbed the saga of her activism in the 1990s, in which she successfully rallied veterans of the American Indian Movement, such as John Trudell, to block the government’s plan to store nuclear waste on the Mescalero Reservation.
Peter’s admiration for Rufina and other members of the tribe, including Lowell Fairbanks–and the question of a visit to New Mexico–became one of many ideas motivating him to continue living. More immediate were his beloved grandchildren, Michael and William (Delia’s sons), and Sienna and Willow (Ben’s twin daughters), and the chance to spend time in a cabin he had built for his offspring, in upstate New York, next to his friend Ray’s.
On the day that Peter died, Rufina had finally gotten a copy of a traditional medicinal recipe that she promised could help heal him. When told by phone that he died, she grew quiet. Crying for the loss of a friend she had not seen in fifty-five years, she called him a beautiful man, and promised to burn sage and ask God’s blessing for him.
His children remember him as a kind, humble man, with a calming presence, who was curious about everyone he met—from the cashier at the local grocery store to the superintendent of his senior community to the nurses who tended to him in his final days. During those final, trying times, one nurse, frustrated that the hospital was short-staffed, had written her resignation letter. After Pete hugged her and told her how important her work was, she tore up the letter. “He hugged me,” she said. “This is what it’s all about.”
The service will be held at the New Milford Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses on Aug 5, at 12:45 PM.
"A nondenominational gathering will take place at 3:30 at the Maxx 94 Railroad Street, New Milford, CT Reception at 3:30
For more, go to https://www.phalenfuneral.com/obituary/Peter-Whitney