MOBILE, Ala. – When University of Mobile School of Education graduates describe Dr. Hazel Petersen Walter, who died March 15, 2023, at the age of 99, they use words like: motivating, demanding, dedicated and respected.
In her role as a dean and vice president, faculty and staff saw her as formidable yet mischievous, challenging yet encouraging.
UM president and 1979 alumnus Dr. Lonnie Burnett adds another descriptor: “mentor.”
“My first mentor, Dr. Hazel Petersen, taught me the importance of always pursuing excellence, even in the smallest details. Next to an eventual ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ a word of approval from her was the most treasured acknowledgement,” Burnett recalled.
During her long tenure at the Baptist-affiliated university, “Dr. Petersen,” as she was known to her UM family, served as chair of the Division of Education, interim dean, academic dean and vice president for academic affairs. After retiring in 1989, she returned to the university as assistant to the president and dean of an international branch campus before retiring again in 1998.
Prior to serving at the University of Mobile, she married Neils Petersen and taught school in Florida, Louisiana and Alabama. Later, after his death, she met her second husband, Homer Walter, during her retirement years. They were married for seven years until he passed away in 2007.
‘I Love Students’
Hazel Adams Petersen Walter was a lifelong educator. Born Jan. 17, 1924, she earned a Bachelor of Arts from Howard College (now Samford University) in 1950 and a Master of Education in 1965 from Auburn University. In 1967, after earning a doctorate in education from Auburn, she joined the faculty of the new Baptist-affiliated Mobile College. Founded in 1961, the school enrolled its first class in 1963 and, in 1993, became the University of Mobile.
“I have a strong feeling about the importance of Christian higher education,” she recalled in 2019. “I made the choice to come to the University of Mobile. It was new, and I had the opportunity to develop the teacher education program. It was a quality school with high expectations, but the support was there for students, and the faculty was committed.”
Those weren’t the only reasons she invested much of her life into the Christian university.
“Of course, I love students,” she said.
“My love for the children I could not have was the greatest thing ever given to me. I had so many young people I could reach out to and become a part of my life, and in some way, I could become a part of their life,” she said.
One of those students was Dr. Debra Chancey, who would eventually follow in Petersen’s footsteps as dean of the School of Education. Petersen taught Chancey in both undergraduate and graduate programs.
Impact the World
“I cannot think of anyone who exemplifies the impact that an educator can have on her community and world more than Dr. Hazel Petersen Walter,” said Chancey, who now serves as associate vice president for institutional effectiveness in the Office for Academic Affairs.
As a student, Chancey worked in Petersen’s office helping the dean prepare SACSCOC materials and state review documents. In later years, Chancey with husband and fellow UM graduate, Danny, would travel to Gainesville, Florida, to visit Petersen at her retirement community.
“Her life not only touched the students she taught at the college level but also touched the students of the teachers she mentored, the students she taught in Vietnam, the students of the university she helped establish in Nicaragua, and the international students that she welcomed into her home. She truly became part of all the lives she touched.
“From the perspective of a former student and lifelong friend, I can say she was one of the most amazing people I have ever met,” Chancey said.
Bold and Adventurous
Throughout her career, the professor-turned-administrator was bold and adventurous.
In the 1960s, women were rarely appointed to high-level administrative positions in higher education. Mobile College founding president Dr. William K. Weaver Jr. promoted Petersen to chair of the college’s Division of Education – one of the highest positions held at that time by women in higher education in the state of Alabama.
Later, when Weaver appointed her to the top post of academic dean, she broke another glass ceiling. At that time, there were no other female academic deans in Baptist colleges nationwide.
“He thought I was the right person for that position,” she said. “I remember a meeting I went to for the Baptist colleges. I went into the deans’ meeting, and one of the gentlemen said to me, ‘The ladies are meeting in another location; this is for the deans.’”
Retelling the story, she paused and, with a chuckle, recalled her response.
“I said, ‘I am a dean,’” and took her seat alongside the men.
Petersen and her Mobile College colleague, English professor Dr. Frances Garner, were among the first American teachers to venture into Vietnam in 1989 following the Vietnam War. They had volunteered to teach English as a second language to Vietnamese educators.
Later, she lived in Nicaragua for several years while the university operated a branch campus, retiring when that campus closed in 1998.
Hazel Petersen Scholarships
Two scholarships at the University of Mobile honor Petersen Walter.
The Hazel Petersen Scholarship is a full tuition scholarship that recognizes outstanding students who have distinguished themselves through academic achievement and personal excellence.
The Hazel A. Petersen Leadership Scholarship is an endowed scholarship established in 2015 by the Chanceys for a teacher education student.
In lieu of flowers, the Petersen Walters family requests donations be made to the Hazel A. Petersen Leadership Scholarship at the University of Mobile. Donors may visit umobile.edu and click “Give” at the top of the page to designate the donation from the dropdown list, or go directly to umobile.edu/give.
‘A Wonderful Life’
In June of 2007 at the age of 83, Petersen visited the University of Mobile campus for the final time. During her two-day visit, Petersen lived in the university’s newest residence hall for women, Karlene Farmer Faulkner Hall, and enjoyed interacting with students.
Former students and longtime faculty and staff gathered in Moorer Auditorum to honor the educator. The RamTonz barbershop quartet demonstrated their award-winning harmonies at an impromptu concert.
“It’s exciting for me to hear of the accomplishments of the students who have come through the university,” Petersen said. “I firmly believe in private higher education and how it affects your quality of life. It makes a difference in your future. We have people in every profession who are making significant differences in the world.”
Surrounded by colleagues, former students and friends, she reflected on her career, her adventures, and the many years and adventures that still lay ahead.
“I’ve had a wonderful life – I’ve always had a wonderful life,” Petersen said.
About the University of Mobile
About the University of Mobile
The University of Mobile is a Christ-centered university offering on-campus and online associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in over 75 academic programs. Founded in 1961, the University of Mobile is affiliated with the Alabama Baptist State Convention and is located 10 miles north of Mobile, Alabama on a campus of over 880 acres.
For information about the University of Mobile, areas of study, admissions and more, visit umobile.edu, connect with UM on social media @univofmobile, or call Enrollment Services at 1.800.WIN.RAMS or 251.442.2222.