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In Memoriam: Victor Wellington Peters, 109

The oldest living USC Dornsife alumnus donated hundreds of letters he wrote describing his missionary work in Korea to the USC Digital Library.

Victory Wellington Peters' portrait in his USC yearbook c. 1924. Courtesy of the Peters family.
Victory Wellington Peters' portrait in his USC yearbook c. 1924. Courtesy of the Peters family.

Victor Wellington Peters, USC's oldest alumnus, died Aug. 12 at age 109.

Born Sept. 29, 1902, in Kansas City, Mo., he moved to Southern California with his family in 1919.

Upon arriving, Peters enrolled at the newly created southern branch of the University of California, which later became UCLA. In its first few years, the new campus offered only a two-year undergraduate course, as four-year and other degrees were granted only at the university’s Berkeley campus.

After completing his studies at UCLA in 1921, Peters took a break from education and devoted a year to building houses in Alhambra and Rosemead, Calif., with his father. With this new skill under his belt, Peters resumed his studies at USC.

Few students today would recognize the university that welcomed Peters in 1922. Streetcars rolled down what is now Trousdale Avenue — then a public street named University Avenue. The then-called Bovard Hall was a year old, and Doheny Memorial Library would not be built for another decade.

Graduating from USC’s College of Liberal Arts in 1924 (now USC Dornsife) with a B.A. in fine arts, Peters went on to earn a graduate degree in theology from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.

In 1928, Peters left the United States to serve as a Methodist missionary in Seoul, Korea, in what turned out to be a 13-year sojourn. There, in addition to missionary work, Peters met his wife, Ruth (born Hahn Heung Bok). The Peters family believes their marriage in 1938 was the first performed in Korea between an American and a Korean. In 1939, the couple gave birth to their first child, Gloria Grace Peters.

A prolific correspondent, Peters wrote more than 400 letters to his parents in Rosemead, chronicling the day-to-day life of a foreign missionary and richly describing Korean culture and history. Though personal in nature, the letters are a rare English-language primary source on Korea under Japanese occupation. Peters donated the letters to USC’s Korean Heritage Library in 2006. The USC Libraries subsequently digitized them and made them available online through the USC Digital Library.

Peters returned with his family to the U.S. in 1941, just months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. During World War II, he served as pastor at the Korean Methodist Church in Los Angeles. He hoped to return to missionary work in Korea at the war’s conclusion, but U.S. occupying forces banned civilians from entering the country.

Instead, over the next 37 years Peters served as a pastor and teacher at several L.A.-area churches.

In 1959, he joined the faculty of Azusa College (now Azusa Pacific University) and over the next eight years taught more than 30 courses across several disciplines. Students called him “The Renaissance Man.”

He was also an accomplished artist. In Korea, his watercolors — many of them lost during the Korean War — combined Christian imagery with Korean motifs. In later years, he painted more than 150 canvases. Between 1968 and 1973 he worked for a L.A. printing company, drawing maps, illustrations and logos.

Peters remained active through the 11th decade of his life, mentoring Korean doctoral students at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena from 1999 to 2004.

In November 2010, he returned to USC with his family to tour his alma mater. At the Korean Heritage Library, Peters browsed through maps and reference books, reminiscing about his time in Korea.

Peters is survived by his four children, Grace, Margaret, Elona, and Mel; eight grandchildren; 24 great-grandchildren; and three great-great-grandchildren.

The memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Oct. 7 at First Church of the Nazarene, 3700 Sierra Madre Blvd., Pasadena, Calif.