A Life: Peter Stettenheim, 1928-2013; ‘You Make A Difference by Being Involved’
Peter Stettenheim took this photo of a horned puffin in 1993 during a trip to Nunivak Island off the southwestern coast of Alaska. An ornithologist, Stettenheim did his PhD field research on the island in 1954. "Puffins were probably my father’s favorite birds," Joel Stettenheim said in an e-mail.
Lebanon — A reserved scientist who loved puns. A private yet sometimes gregarious man who gave “wonderful, great, deep hugs.” A “doer.”
That’s how friends and family describe Peter Stettenheim, a longtime Upper Valley resident who played a public role both in creating the Montshire Museum and became an outspoken opponent of the Iraq War.
Stettenheim and his wife, Sandy, married for 46 years, shared a deep commitment to peaceful nonviolence and social change. Two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, they organized a peace vigil in West Lebanon.
“We hope that for those who are sympathetic, that this will give them some encouragement and support, and that for those who are against (the peace movement), it might — it might — get them to think about it,” Stettenheim told the Valley News in 2002. “I like to think that little by little the idea might be planted.”
The Saturday morning peace vigils along Route 12A continued for more than 10 years. In the early years, some drivers shouted obscenities at the group. But as the war dragged on, those responses became infrequent.
Kathleen Shepherd, of Norwich, was among those who regularly attended the gatherings.
There were a lot more signs than people, and Stettenheim would often prepare the site in advance, digging small holes in the mud or a snowbank to prop up the signs, Shepherd said. With messages like “How many must die?” and “Believe in peace,” they were not only about “the tragedy of war, but also the possibility of peace, if people work for it,” she said
A fellow member of Hanover Friends Meeting, Shepherd knew Stettenheim for 35 years.
With no ministry or staff, everything in a Quaker meeting is achieved through community service, and Stettenheim, “a very faithful member,” probably served on all of the meeting’s committees over time, she said. He also took up the work of keeping a photo gallery of members, shooting pictures of newcomers and updating old photos.
Stettenheim’s daughter said photography was a way for him to express his love for family and friends.
“He recorded our lives,” said Wendy Jones, whose stairway at home is filled with family photos he took over the past three decades. He had “a marvelous ability to wait it out and get those great, great shots of people enjoying being together.”
Stettenheim, a New York City native, earned a doctorate in zoology from the University of Michigan in 1959. He and Sandy moved with their two children to Plainfield in 1969. There, he worked from home, spent time with his family and continued a lifelong habit of community service.
An avid traveler, expert birder and longtime peacenik, Stettenheim didn’t have to force himself to be active, said his son Joel Stettenheim, of Norwich. It was a natural expression of his Quaker beliefs and his gratitude for a life rich in opportunities.
“You make a difference by being involved and active,” Joel Stettenheim said. “That’s just the way he was.”
Stettenheim recently moved to the Woodlands in Lebanon. “A very young 84,” he was active right up until his death of an apparent heart attack on Jan. 20, Joel Stettenheim said.
For the past year, Stettenheim had volunteered at Upper Valley Haven, helping cover a busy Wednesday afternoon shift in the food shelf. Despite his height, 6 foot 2, he was never intimidating, said Lori Lounsbury, the Haven’s food shelf coordinator.
“He was incredibly warm and inviting,” Lounsbury said. “He greeted everybody with a smile on his face and he had a very, very gentle manner with everyone.”
Recently, he had talked with the staff about taking kids in the Haven’s afterschool program birding.
“I think he wanted to share whatever he could with us,” said volunteer coordinator Laura Perez.
From science to art, travel to photography, his curiosity ran deep and broad, and Stettenheim had a natural inclination to share it.
“Peter was very easy to get along with because he had just incredible interests,” his longtime friend and fellow scientist Alan Brush said.
The two met at an ornithological congress in the Orkney Islands in 1966 and bonded over their interest in birds, particularly in feathers. Over the years, they read one another’s manuscripts and bunked together at professional meetings.
Throughout his long career as a researcher and editor, Stettenheim was committed to improving scientific writing. He published articles in ornithological journals and presented his work at various conferences. He was a founding editor of The Birds of North America, now a massive online collection of life histories of birds that breed on the continent, and editor of one of the country’s top ornithological journals. His biggest scientific contribution, however, is considered to be a two-volume book on avian anatomy published by the USDA.
The well written and “superbly illustrated” work, which Stettenheim co-wrote with Alfred Lucas, reflects his meticulous eye, said Brush, who recently retired from the University of Connecticut. “He didn’t do the illustrations, but he saw to it that they were accurate ... and that kind of thing was a big strength for him.”
His preference for precise language, careful record keeping and general thoughtfulness was also evident elsewhere, in the detailed journals he kept during his travels and his expressive correspondence with friends and family.
“I think ... that’s his nature and also the Quaker side of him,” Jones said. “He was used to really pondering and digging deeply into whatever it was, whether a thought or a feeling or anything else.”
Jones, who lives outside of Los Angeles, said she and her father frequently exchanged long letters via email.
While he was quick to volunteer, he was also able to ask for help. When his wife became sick from complications of cancer, Stettenheim was her primary caregiver.
“He was there day in and day out,” Joel Stettenheim said. “He did that without complaint and with a very good heart.”
Sandy’s death in 2011 was very hard for his father, Joel Stettenheim said, but rather than isolate, he reached out to the Quaker community for support. His son saw the move as an example of how he continued to open up and grow over the course of his life.
“That’s not easy, I think, for a man of his generation to acknowledge that this is an intense emotional time and he needed to be open about it and deal with it,” Joel Stettenheim said. “I think he realized that it was important ... so he could continue to have a rich, full life even after her passing.”
Stettenheim, a strong advocate of science education, had a knack for teaching in formal and informal settings. Growing up, Jones often sought out her father in his home office with questions on all kinds of subjects.
“He was sort of my live Internet,” she said. “He would tell you what he knew about it and point you in the direction of a book or resource that would tell you more.”
One of a handful of people who co-founded the Montshire Museum, Stettenheim was passionate about educating people about the process of science, said Montshire Executive Director David Goudy. He taught adult courses in avian anatomy at the museum, which opened in 1976, and served on the board until 1991.
He continued to be involved with the Montshire, Goudy said, and “he was happy to come volunteer for all sorts of things.”
Stettenheim was also happy to share what his son called his “incredible raw knowledge about the world.”
An ILEAD teacher and frequent speaker at local libraries and clubs, Stettenheim was generous with his research about birds and art. He and his wife traveled widely and often collected artwork along the way. Inuit art, with its emphasis on the relationship between animals and people, especially called to Stettenheim, along with Native American work from the southwestern United States.
“He enjoyed the aesthetic, but he also was fascinated by the symbolism and the meaning that birds have and also what you could learn (about a culture) by knowing about the bird,” his son said.
Peter Stettenheim’s work took him to conferences all over the world, but his adventurous spirit also led to all sorts of trips with family and friends.
“He loved going to wild places,” his son said, and traveled all over the world.
In 2001, the couple traveled by boat along the Antarctic Peninsula. In his journal, Stettenheim wrote enthusiastically about a day he and Sandy spent sea kayaking in Paradise Bay.
We soon get the hang of propelling and steering our craft, delighted to find it’s so easy. We paddle past the station and around the point, where we discover a colony of about 10 pairs of cormorants on a sloping ledge, which was out of sight from the land. Next, by paddling gently, we are able to come within a few feet of a Cape petrel — probably the one we saw earlier — that is resting and preening on a rock close to the shore; never before have we gotten such a close look at this handsome bird. Farther on, we pass cliffs with colored lichens and a blue-green stain (copper?). Eight to ten Antarctic terns are flying about and quarreling. They, too, probably nest on the cliffs since we see a young tern there. Out in the water is an occasional cormorant and Gentoo penguin. Several Wilson’s storm-petrels fly about, dancing on the surface. Four or five crab-eater seals swim past us, just a few feet away, so close that we can see them snort as they exhale. We’re delighted by this kayak experience because it has enabled us to explore a little on our own, at our own pace, and to have wonderful looks at birds and mammals that we would not have had otherwise. And it’s so easy. Absolutely beautiful!
With family and friends, the Stettenheims also went backpacking and white-water rafting in the Pacific Northwest and canoeing in Michigan. But adventuring didn’t always require going far afield. Joel Stettenheim fondly remembers his father picking him up after school and purposely taking an unfamiliar dirt road to get “a little bit lost” on the way home.
“We’d just take it and follow that and take another turn and sort of keep going and exploring and see where it dumped us out,” he said. “At some point, we’d recognize where we were and work our way back.”
He compared the drives to his father’s habit of exploring the woods around their house and the map he drew of local cellar holes.
It was all part his father’s sense of adventure and curiosity, he said, “and enjoyment of exploring the world around you and finding out things you didn’t know.”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.