Viewpoint: Milt Peterson was a legend, and not only for what he built

WASHINGTON BUSINESS JOURNAL – We don’t throw around the words “icon” or “legend” here at the Washington Business Journal. Those are reserved for the true greats — the entrepreneurs who have withstood the rigors of decades, overcome trials and their own mistakes to build an exceptional legacy and stand as pillars of their communities and the business world.

Milt Peterson was a legend.

I say that not only for the projects he built as founder of the Peterson Cos. — National Harbor, Fair Lakes, Fairfax Corner, downtown Silver Spring, Rio Washingtonian, Burke Centre, Gainesville’s Virginia Gateway, and on and on — but because he put his stamp on our region with such humility, fairly quietly even, and without burning all his bridges along the way.

Because he started with a single house and always insisted that this business, even with its outsized impact on Greater Washington, remain small. Because he was nimble, willing to take risks and make investments on the fly. Because he used his wealth to support charities spanning the health care, education and faith-based sectors. Because he formed partnerships that burgeoned into lifelong friendships. Because he was so beloved by his team and his family — the family that will carry Peterson Cos. into the next generation now that its patriarch has passed.

Milt Peterson died Wednesday at age 85. Just shy of six years earlier, I had the pleasure of sitting down with this development icon ahead of his company’s 50th anniversary. At 79, and already a member of the Washington Business Hall of Fame, he relished the opportunity to wander down memory lane, to explain his humble beginnings, the hard work, partnerships, difficult decisions, great successes and disastrous mistakes.

“I wasn’t smarter than anyone,” he told me. “I just worked harder than everyone.”

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