Philanthropist, longtime Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Board Member, and passionate mental health supporter, J. Robert Peterson passed away on Thursday, March 12 at the age of 88.
Bob Peterson first entered the community of leadership in brain and behavior research when he and his wife, Lee, attended the initial major fundraising event for the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (then NARSAD) in New York City in November, 1987. The event was a concert of the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein and focused on the creative musical skills of composers suffering from depression. At this event, they met with the President of the Foundation Scientific Council, Dr. Herbert Pardes, discussed their son’s recent diagnosis of schizophrenia and expressed their interest in long term support of the organization's goals to develop better treatments and cures for the severe mental illnesses. Showing great dedication, Bob was soon invited to join the Board of Directors of the still young Foundation. Bob and Lee quickly showed their own philanthropic and entrepreneurial support for the organization and its goals.
The Petersons soon organized a fundraising concert to support NARSAD Grants in their hometown of Englewood, New Jersey, and also hosted a series of dinners in their home to introduce like-minded people, concerned with overcoming mental illness, to the Foundation. Shortly thereafter, it was decided to move the organization’s headquarters from its original base in Chicago to Great Neck, New York and to expand the leadership. Bob was elected Executive Vice President of the Board of Directors in 1989, a position which he held for many years, bringing his wisdom and dynamism to help substantially grow the Foundation. He worked in close cooperation with the NARSAD founding president, the late Gwill Newman.
When Bob and Lee moved to Sarasota, Florida from New Jersey, they decided to bring their campaign for the cause and their support for the Foundation to their new home community. They began to host a series of annual gala dinners to raise support for research in mental health and to fund NARSAD Grants. Then, they added to these annual dinner events an outstanding lecture series on key subjects related to mental health, treatments and recovery.
These annual events soon moved into the largest, most distinguished lecture and concert facilities in the community. As the years went on, the annual dinner and lecture series known as "Sunshine from Darkness" became a cultural and philanthropic fixture of southwest Florida.
Bob and Lee brought national leaders in the arts and in psychiatric research to these events, year after year. Guest speakers ranged from the director of the National Institute of Mental Health to musical luminaries, Barbara Cook and Marvin Hamlisch. These events enhanced the awareness and presence of psychiatric treatment in the community, counteracted stigma and brought the involvement of the local medical institutions and professional leadership into closer contact and cooperation with the patient community and its family members. "Sunshine from Darkness" became not only a symbol of mental health leadership in the community, but also quickly became a role model for other communities on the east coast of Florida. Similar events were created in Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale and Delray Beach.
The leadership efforts of Bob and Lee Peterson helped the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (or NARSAD, as they knew it) develop into the leading donor-supported mental health organization for research. Their efforts greatly broadened awareness of the need for support of fundamental research and of the potential for recovery for the mentally ill. Many community and philanthropically-minded people joined the effort due to their programs, providing sizeable funding for NARSAD Grants. In quiet, modest fashion, they transformed their community and even its region from one where typical stigma was encountered in issues of mental health, to one where optimistic support of mind and pocketbook helped to overcome its challenges. Bob Peterson was greatly appreciated at the Foundation and will be remembered as a person of quiet but insistent inspiration, generosity and leadership.