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In Memoriam: Jonathon Peterson

In Memoriam: Jonathon Peterson

March 14, 1953 – February 15, 2022

by GAL Staff, Jeffrey R. Elliott, Cyndy Burton, and Woodley White

Originally published in American Lutherie #145, 2021


We were very sad when we learned that former longtime GAL Staffer Jonathon Peterson had passed away suddenly. If you’ve been a member a while, or if you have attended any GAL Conventions in the last few decades, you’ll remember Jon as the guy behind the camera and the author of many articles in American Lutherie. Jon worked for the Guild from 1987 until 2011. He started out doing clerical tasks and darkroom work, and through years of on-the-job training and experience, became a prolific writer and photographer for the Guild. He made many personal connections with the luthiers he interviewed for our “Meet the Maker” articles, and was one of the regulars at the NW Handmade Musical Instrument Exhibit in Portland. Probably Jon’s most notable accomplishment during his more than two decades with the Guild was photographing and documenting Robert Lundberg’s lute-building process over the course of several years. The articles produced through the collaboration of Bob and Jon eventually resulted in the Guild’s book, Historical Lute Construction, the premier book on the subject. Rest in peace, Jon.

— GAL Staff

At the 2006 Convention. Photo by Robert Desmond.
At the 2008 Convention. Photo by Hap Newsom.

Jon Peterson excelled as a husband, a father, a friend, a luthier, a 6´4˝ dancer, a photographer, a writer, a story teller, a collector of vinyl records and bicycles, and a cyclist extraordinaire among other talents. What stands out for me is that Jon always seemed to have a certain calm about him. It has been there the entire forty-five years I have known him, ever since the 1977 GAL Convention, where we camped out in a teepee pitched in the backyard of Jon’s in-laws. I came to know and love this kind, gentle, and compassionate man, who seemed to easily roll with whatever life threw at him. He had a kind of knowing way about him, as if his understanding of the bigger picture was in tune with the universe, and he was at peace with it. I’ll miss him dearly.

— Jeffrey R. Elliott


Ever since he died, I’ve been thinking about Jon and all the years that have seemingly slipped by since the 1980 GAL Convention in San Francisco. For reasons I don’t know, I hear him saying, “Don’t trouble trouble till trouble troubles you.” I know Jon’s life was not without troubles, and yet he inspired people to be better partly by his example and more than anything, his warmth and empathy. He had the ability to convey acceptance and encouragement. Our paths crossed at Conventions, in our work for the GAL, and in our living room and at the kitchen table. His GAL work included luthier interviews and many other articles that provided and continue to provide a bounty of useful information to share with the readers of American Lutherie along with many of the books the GAL has published, particularly Jon’s direct work with Robert Lundberg on the Historical Lute Construction book.

I’d like to think that Jon is somewhere admiring the enormity of the great unknown and has, of course, already made friends with other sentient beings.

— Cyndy Burton

Jon Peterson at the 1980 GAL Convention. Photo by Dale Korsmo.

We who work with wood, almost automatically sense that we are engulfed in a thick orchestration of life and death. Fresh green things sprout beside the decay of fallen giants. The mulch of generations of leaves and branches fertilizes every manner of plant, fungus, tree, flower, or spider. Life emerges from death, and death from life, at every turn in the trail. It feels as if the earth is absolutely incapable of not producing life at every opportunity. The constancy of it, the relentless expansion and contraction of life and death is so insistently miraculous that we only become more and more quiet in the presence of this endless cycle.

Such is our life. We are born, we live a while, and then we die. It’s true of every living thing. Taken at face value, it makes us seem so small, or insignificant. In the midst of such impermanence, how can our meager, individual lives possibly achieve any real meaning? All beings live and die; billions of lives on earth arise and pass away. Whole worlds are born and then destroyed. Entire galaxies come into being and then dissolve. What possible value can a single, modest human life have in this breathtaking cacophony of life and death?

When I think of my friend, Jon Peterson, I want to say, “the value of a single life shines brightly.” A single rose, a single star, a single note of sweet music played at the right moment — these are things of great beauty and wonder. All that we do becomes embedded in the whole; because of this, our every day — our every word, every act of kindness, love, or beauty — is an invaluable opportunity to contribute to the growth and beauty of all things. With our single life, we change the shape of the universe. With his single life, Jonathon has changed the shape of our world.

I really loved my friend and I will miss him. I loved his dry sense of humor, the crinkle in the corner of his mouth when he smiled; his pony tail; the sparkle in his eyes. I loved his thoughtfulness. I was surprised when he rode his bicycle down from Tacoma to Portland with his son and then all over Portland. I loved his appreciation for life and for love and for guitar making and his place in this universe, his generosity, his commitment. I remember asking if he thought I could handle a guitar repair one day and he said, ”That all depends on how skilled you are with a scraper.” That comment sticks with me twenty-five years later.

One time we were at Jeff and Cyndy’s house with Jim Kline evaluating two sister guitars I had made and we were talking about what we thought of them and Jon interrupted and said, “I disagree with you. The guitar with the stronger trebles will become the better instrument over time as the midrange and bass open up.” He wasn’t shy about expressing his opinion.

In the shadow of his death, we ask ourselves, how will we live? How will we let the gentle, loving strength of his life color ours? A clear perception of death invites us to consider our life as something worth living; an active, creative, passionate event. Life is impermanent. It is precisely because of its impermanence that we should value it dearly. I am thankful for his life and for all the friends I have made in the GAL universe.

— Woodley White