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Dan Peterson, R.I.P.: Remembering hit-and-run victim who elevated bike-safety concerns

Sandi Peterson sometimes worried about how her son Dan, who moved to Denver in 2010, was getting by in a new city. And when she flew here in July from Wisconsin, it was meaningful to meet so many of his friends at once, even if it was under the worst of circumstances. Her son had been badly injured in a bike crash and didn't have much longer to live. But inside the crowded hospital room, it was a comfort in the final moments of her son's life to see firsthand just how many lives Dan had touched during his short time in Denver.

"So many of his friends were there and we had never really met any of them," Peterson recalls. "They were just such rocks for us.... They were there through the end."

Dan Peterson, thirty, died on July 22 after he was hit while riding his bike at the intersection of Lincoln and Speer in the early hours of Sunday morning. It's a collision that prompted a group of anonymous cyclists to chain a white "Ghost Bike" memorial there in honor of a fallen cyclist they didn't even know. His death also elevated concerns of city officials, who were already in the process of discussing bike safety and the rise of cycling in Denver -- the topic of this week's feature, "On a Roll."

Dan Peterson.
Dan Peterson.

Here, we take a closer look at the life of Peterson, a well-liked, athletic transplant from Wisconsin who was killed in a crash that remains unsolved. As we note in our feature, there don't seem to be any promising leads from the Denver Police Department, and months later, his family and friends aren't holding their breath for a resolution.

And arresting the suspects -- who allegedly hit Peterson and then drove off with his mangled bike -- won't bring their loved one back.

"Accidents happen. That's why they are tragic accidents," says Sandi. "But to leave him there, that was hard to think about.... I don't know where their mind was. I have no idea who they are or if they regret it.... But if they would've just stopped, it would've just helped a lot."

When Sandi arrived at the intensive-care unit of Denver Health, where Dan was taken after the accident, she found around twenty of his friends and family members there to say their goodbyes. And the following day, his friends organized an impromptu memorial at Cheesman Park that drew out more than fifty people to talk about Dan.

"Dan had told me, 'Don't worry Mom...there's so many awesome people here that I feel like I have a second home here, a family away from home,'" she recalls. "I could see that."

At the hospital, she adds, "I told them, 'It's kind of you to be here,' and they all said, 'Dan would have been here with us until the end. He would've been the first one here and the last one to leave. That's just the kind of person he was.'"

And that's how many will remember him, says Sarah Goff, another close friend.

"He always put everyone before himself.... I think that's how everyone thinks of him," she says. "Really just a warm, genuine person."

Sarah Goff and Dan Peterson.
Sarah Goff and Dan Peterson.

She adds, "He was so young, but he did a lot in his short time, which was so amazing."

Continue for more reflections and photos of Dan Peterson.   Friends and family describe Dan as a charismatic and caring individual who always managed to get along with everyone -- and bring different groups of people together. He owned a car, but loved to bike as much as possible. He grew up in New London, Wisconsin and lived in Madison for several years before relocating to Denver, where he worked in public relations and marketing. He liked to hike, go to concerts, fly-fish, hunt, ski, play kickball, softball -- anything that got him outside.

Dan Peterson.
Dan Peterson.

"The first thing that comes to mind -- he was definitely a kid at heart," says Matt Peterson, 29, Dan's younger brother. "He always lived in the moment. He acted like a kid when he could but was very professional and adult when he needed to be.... He was the first one to laugh at himself and always tried to make other people laugh."

At the time of his death, he was in between jobs, but had a second interview lined up, his mother says.

He was also considering changing career paths. Dan visited with his mother and a few other family members in South Dakota just a week before he died. "He told me the night before he left, 'Y'know, mom, I feel like I need to do something more with my life. I want to help people more.' We talked about him...going back to school." He was considering traveling or maybe doing the Peace Corps, she says.

He never got the chance.

"He was always striving to try and make a difference," she says. "That impressed me."

She was also surprised when she visited her son's apartment to see that he kept a calendar with simple, monthly goals that all seemed very family-oriented. He wanted to make it back Wisconsin for a visit. He hoped to spend time gardening with his mother, golf with his father, go running with his sister.

"How insightful.... They were just really amazing," she says, adding, "Sometimes you think you idolize people who have gone, but he was very, very kind."

His friend Abby Laib says she has been seeing signs of Dan since he died. In Wisconsin for the funeral, she and some of his friends went canoeing -- and a bald eagle followed them along a river, she says. "It was just staring at us and even bowed its head to us."

Ghost bike back in July.
Ghost bike back in July.
Sam Levin

And at a service for Dan in Wisconsin, they played his favorite song, "Rise," by Eddie Vedder -- and forty or fifty barn swallows began flying around, she adds.

"I think we've all been taking comfort in seeing little signs," Laib says.

His close friend and former roommate Kate Chambers, who spent all day at the hospital with Dan, says his compassion for others was inspiring. "He made everyone feel just honored. He was honored to be in your presence. He was so happy for you, no matter what.... It's just a gentle, gentle spirit that he had."

She says that some called him "the great unifier" because he connected so many people. "I definitely felt like I was part of a community once I met him."

She adds, "Maybe sometimes he didn't even realize the joy that he brought to other people's lives."

Continue for more photos.  

Sarah Goff and Dan Peterson.
Sarah Goff and Dan Peterson.
Dan Peterson, R.I.P.: Remembering hit-and-run victim who elevated bike-safety concerns
Dan Peterson, R.I.P.: Remembering hit-and-run victim who elevated bike-safety concerns
Ghost bike.
Ghost bike.
Sam Levin
Dan Peterson, R.I.P.: Remembering hit-and-run victim who elevated bike-safety concerns
Dan Peterson, R.I.P.: Remembering hit-and-run victim who elevated bike-safety concerns

More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Bike rage?: Cyclist injured by barbed-wire trap on South Platte Trail"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.


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