Grethe Ballif Peterson

January 8, 1932 - April 15, 2024

Grethe Ballif Peterson, daughter, wife, mother, woman of faith, and community builder, died on April 15, 2024. She was 92.

Born in 1932, Ane Grethe Ballif, (named after her Danish grandmother Annie Nielsen Eggertsen) was the youngest of the four children of Algie and George Ballif. Her home on University Avenue in Provo was a place where family, church, and community were woven into a happy and engaging childhood. Grethe’s mother held numerous public services positions including Provo school board, two-time state legislator, president of the Utah Democratic Party ,and Chair of the State Department of Welfare. After graduating from Brigham Young University Laboratory School, Grethe was eager to see the world. She spent a year in Sweden with her aunt Esther Peterson ( a labor organizer and later JFK’s Assistant Secretary of Labor). Upon her return to Provo, Grethe completed a history degree from BYU in three years, and, proud to graduate unmarried, went east to attend the Radcliffe Management Training program–, a graduate degree in business available to women when the Harvard Business School was not.

It was a happy irony that the move to Boston – where she hoped to escape all things Utah– resulted in her meeting the love of her life: a Cache Valley boy studying at Harvard Medical School. Chase Nebeker Peterson and Grethe were married in the Salt Lake Temple on June 8, 1956 by David O. McKay, the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Chase’s medical training and military service then took them to New Haven, Connecticut where Grethe taught elementary school to the children of Italian immigrants, then to Frankfurt Germany, where daughter Erika was born, and back to Connecticut for Chase’s residency where son Stuart was born.

By 1963 they had returned to Utah and Chase had joined the internal medicine department at the Salt Lake Clinic Grethe joyfully focused on her children, now totalling three with the birth of Edward in 1965. She supplemented family life with volunteer work at the Salt Lake Junior League, planning shows and promoting local artists at the Art Barn, which would later evolve into Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.

A comfortable life close to friends and family in Utah seemed inevitable when, in the summer of 1967, Chase was invited to become the Dean of Admissions of Harvard College. At first reluctant to leave, after an exploratory trip to Cambridge, Grethe was ready for the next step. At first planning on a two-year leave from medicine, their Harvard sojourn lasted 11 years.

The culture, religion, and politics of Cambridge, Massachusetts was light-years from the Salt Lake City that Chase and Grethe left behind. Student protests were frequent, challenges to the status quo predictable. Grethe was unphased. On a spring day in 1969 her children came home from school to their mother’s matter-of-fact announcement that they would be spending the night in neighboring Brookline because the Students for a Democratic Society had threatened to burn down the house. Chase stayed home to keep watch (the rioters never showed) and the kids remember a fun weeknight sleepover. While helping her children negotiate this new world with curiosity instead of fear, Grethe jumped into community work, participating in Harvard Neighbors, a service organization for faculty spouses, and Cambridge Family and Children’s Services which provided humanitarian programs for the local community outside Havard’s orbit.

In their Victorian house on Irving street, built by the philosopher William James for his family in the 1800s, the Petersons offered a home-away-from-home for Harvard students. Always on the lookout for homesick undergraduates–particularly LDS students from the West–Grethe welcomed all to the family dinner table, provided the use of a washer/ dryer, and offered free haircuts that included an empathetic listening ear.

A profound part of this time was the strength and comfort Grethe and her family found in the Cambridge Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Grethe modeled commitment to a faith community that included Utah transplants and east-coast converts. She served in almost every position available to women–from the Young Women’s organization to the Relief Society–while always lending a hand at beloved annual events like wreath-making parties, the Messiah sing-in, and clambakes at Crane’s Beach

The Cambridge Ward of the early 70s was also ground zero for Mormon feminism. A genius cluster of women of the likes of Claudia Bushman and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich were starting to explore second wave feminism in their personal lives and in the institutional church. What began as consciousness-raising sessions with an LDS twist gave birth to first a collection of personal essays in the “pink issue” of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, and then the founding of Exponent II. Taking inspiration from the Mormon women's newspaper published in Utah from 1872 to 1914, Exponent II was poised on the “dual platforms of Mormonism and feminism” and sought to “strengthen the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and encourage and develop the talents of Mormon women.” Grethe became managing editor in 1974 and the paper was headquartered in her home. The house was lively with Exponent staff members coming in and out, to and from the fourth floor attic where, long before digital publishing, each issue was carefully pasted up and made ready for the printer.

In 1978, Grethe and Chase returned to Salt Lake where Chase became the Vice-President for Health Sciences at the University of Utah. Grethe was well-positioned to serve as a bridge-builder between diverse communities. She continued to support LDS feminism: interviewing thought leaders and writing about the all-male priesthood and Latter-day Saint women. She hosted a Utah gathering with Sonia Johnson, Mormon Equal Rights Amendment activist who was subsequently excommunicated. Grethe was one of the early voices to publicly speak about the profound connection she felt to her Mother in Heaven. She was a co-founder of Utahns for Choice. Yet she was also valued by the institutional church privately and publicly. Behind the scenes, LDS church leaders sought her perspective on organizational ways the church could better support women. She enthusiastically served on the General Board of the Young Women’s Organization: inspired by President Elaine Cannon’s energy, professionalism, and diplomacy.

Grethe continued to be Chase’s advisor and confidant as he assumed the presidency of the University of Utah. Their home at Rosenblatt House became a hub for university events, students, visiting scholars, donors, and legislators. At the same time Grethe’s drive to serve her community, state, nation, and planet, led to a dizzying array of projects outside the parameters of a Presidential spouse. Among them was Women Concerned About Nuclear War, of which she was the co-founder, that promoted education and sponsored exchanges between U.S. and Soviet women. For seventeen years, she directed the Tanner Lecture on Human Values, a multi-university lecture series in the humanities. In 1993 at the behest of the Utah Democratic Party, Grethe was a short-lived candidate for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Orrin Hatch.

After a three-month exploratory campaign Grethe pulled out of the race: discouraged by the enormous burden of fundraising, and the pressure to over simplify complex issues.

Amidst the call of community and church, Grethe was a loving nurturer of her children, grandchildren, and extended family. She was happy to drop everything and travel across town, the country, or the world to help out with a new baby. She welcomed her grandchildren over Christmases and summers to the Park City home she and Chase designed and built after his presidency. She took loving care of her oldest sister, Gene B. Marcus in her final years. Grethe hosted family reunions, wedding receptions, and birthday parties.When adult children in transition needed a place to live, she always made room for them.

In 1988, after serving on a jury in a child abuse case. Grethe was deeply troubled by the way the victims were retraumatized by having to testify over and over again amidst strangers in a courtroom. Grethe met with Norm Bangerter, who created the Governor’s Task Force on Child Abuse and appointed her as Chair. After three years of research, community education, and private/public partnership, the Children’s Justice Center was established with the mission of providing a child-freindly, supportive atmosphere where children could receive coordinated services during the child abuse investigative process. There are now 26 such centers throughout Utah and every year the organization bestows the Grethe Peterson Children’s Justice Award. In her memoir, Grethe wrote that if she could only have made one contribution to her community outside of family, the CJC would have been it.

As the years went by, there were more opportunities to serve. She was appointed to the board of the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Games, during which she raised funds to keep glass sculptor Dale Chihuly’s Olympic Tower in Utah. It is now permanently displayed in Abravanel Hall, the home of the Utah Symphony.

After the death of her beloved Chase in 2014, Grethe focused once again on family and her legacy. She complimented her LDS faith with meditation and travel with friends and teachers at The Growing Place: attending retreats in Europe and Asia and always returning with a larger sense of God’s divine love and her unique assignment while on this earth.

In 2022, with the help of writer Kimberly Heuston, Grethe published her memoir, Growing Into Myself. At the conclusion of the book Grethe writes:

The struggle for authenticity is central to our life experience...The entire process can be painful–too often making us more aware of our limitations than our strengths. But if we are to grow, there must be a final synthesis of past and present.

Grethe leaves her three children, thirteen grandchildren and six great-grandchildren as well as beloved nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. The Peterson family wishes to thank all those who have shown love and skill in caring for Grethe, especially the staff of the Sunrise at Holladay assisted living community, and Canyon Hospice care. Andriana Campos provided loving companionship to Grethe over the last five years for which the family is deeply grateful. A celebration of life will be held on Saturday, May 25 at 11 am at the Monument Park LDS Stake Center, 1320 Wasatch Drive, Salt Lake City, UT 84108. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations in Grethe’s name to Salt Lake Friends of the Children’s Justice Center.

Services will be live streamed via Zoom. Please visit this page and click the "Zoom Service" button above to view.