Ray Peterson devoted 40 years to teaching at South Dakota State University, and four years after his retirement he still plays a key part in the school’s spirit and traditions by leading the Fantastic Float program demonstrations. As the “float guru,” Peterson is willing to share his knowledge with SDSU student organizations to build memorable floats for the Hobo Day Parade.
“I think when you spend four full decades at a university, you’re bound to feel a close connection to that institution,” Peterson said. “The university certainly was good to me, and I like to think I was good to the university.”
After Peterson’s return from Vietnam, he received a call from a former classmate at Dakota State University, Fred Smith, who was a teaching assistant at SDSU at that time. Smith asked Peterson if he would help teach a semester of speech, but that semester lasted 40 years as he fell into a lifelong career at SDSU with the theater department.
Peterson’s career lead to a gradual influence on shaping the theater department into what it is today. One lasting legacy of Peterson’s is his main role in making Capers into the edgy, satirical Capers.
When Peterson came to SDSU, Capers was a one-night talent show open to students and faculty.
“From the very first year, I could see they had all kinds of possibilities for growth,” Peterson said.
He proposed changing the format of the show from a one-night production to a six-night production with open auditions and taking a theme and building the show around it. The idea of incorporating a theme was to find a connection throughout the audience. Peterson said it was immediately successful and he stuck with Capers for 30 years.
In addition to Peterson’s hand in Capers, he worked with the University Theater and was part of the initial expansion of Prairie Repertory Theater. He still hosts Alpha Psi Omega, the Theater Honor Society, for its Christmas Party each year to stay connected with current students.
Outside of SDSU, Peterson will celebrate his 50th year working with the Miss South Dakota Pageant. He started out as a vocalist for the pageant, but eventually took on greater roles. He now takes on a larger workload by selecting the theme and music, editing the music, writing the script, designing the set, matching costumes to the theme, overseeing construction, directing the show and working closely with the contestants.
“The pageant takes care of whatever creative juices are left in me,” Peterson said.
The Float Guru
Peterson’s interest in floats started when he was a young boy and would watch county schools around Oldham, S.D. present their floats for their annual field day celebration parade. By the time Peterson was in high school and could present a float, he, along with members of his class, swore to always build the best float, which they kept.
Once at SDSU, Peterson stopped working with floats for a while, but a colleague was aware of his talents and abilities with float construction and decoration and “volunteered [his] services” as a float advisor for the Students’ Association, alumni float advisor and APO float advisor.
Peterson’s work with floats eventually fell away, until he chose to start up again by participating in the Fantastic Float program and helping student organizations build floats for the Hobo Day parade.
Peterson said there is great attendance and representation of organizations on campus and it’s “amazing to see the outcome.” Although Peterson is proud to see organizations build floats, he said he thinks float building is an art form and has turned into a thing of the past. The process of float building is challenging according to Peterson, but very rewarding through the camaraderie gained in the experience.
In his experience with float building, Peterson said he misses the hobo atmosphere at the parade like there once was.
“I’d like to see more of the hobo spirit return again,” he said.
Peterson plans to attend the parade this year and encouraged students to make the most of their float-building experiences.
“Look at the float-building experience as an opportunity to get to know one another,” he said, “…to showcase your organization and to simply have a great deal of fun.”