Centreville Matt Peterson was just 16 when his father inexplicably killed him, his mother and younger brother in their Herndon home before taking his own life.
It was September 2012 and Matt had just begun his sophomore year at Westfield High. The tragedy plunged the community into mourning, and no answers were ever given for the father’s horrific act.
Nine months have passed since then, but Matt’s teacher and fellow students in his Aerospace II class at school haven’t forgotten him. Moreover, they’re doing something special to honor his life and dreams.
They’re raising money to have his name inscribed on the National Aviation and Space Exploration Wall of Honor. It’s a permanent memorial at the museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly and acknowledges people with a passion for flight.
“Matt’s death was just so stunning,” said his teacher, Chuck Cowell. “His whole family’s was killed, and that’s what made it so heartbreaking. He was an outstanding boy, and so helpful — just a really good kid.”
Matt was also in Cowell’s Aerospace I class last year, learning basic engineering principals and space-systems engineering. “It’s what a private pilot would learn,” said Cowell. “And there were 25-26 students in Aerospace II.”
He said Matt developed an interest in aviation and really enjoyed it. Matt also wanted to get a radio-controlled airplane. One or two Sundays a month, through the winter, the Northern Virginia Radio-Control Club — which has a partnership with Westfield — holds indoor, fun flies inside the school’s gym.
“The planes are about 18 inches by 18 inches and Matt was really into them,” said Cowell. “One day, he even brought his whole family to see them and his interest started growing.”
Then in April 2012, when the Space Shuttle Discovery was going to fly into Dulles Airport to be towed to the Udvar-Hazy Center, the museum’s education staff asked Cowell if some of his students wanted to help out with the welcoming ceremonies. Matt volunteered and liked it so much that he started volunteering there that summer.
“He helped out at events and worked at the museum’s Discovery Stations,” said Cowell. “He helped visitors with hands-on activities and explained, for example, how things fly and how spacesuits work.”
Matt enjoyed it a great deal and, after he died, Jenny McIntosh — the Discovery Stations program coordinator — contacted Cowell. “She told me her biggest memory of Matt was that, after an event, he shook hands with the museum staff and thanked them for allowing him to volunteer and help out there. And he wanted to keep doing it.”
Cowell said the idea of putting Matt’s name on the Wall of Honor came from his Aerospace II classmate, Nick Romano, who also volunteered at the Udvar-Hazy Center. And it was an immediate hit with Cowell and the entire class. (For more information, go to http://airandspace.si.edu/wallofhonor/).
“I felt so bad about Matt’s death, beyond the normal tragedy, because he had no immediate family members to carry on his memory,” said Cowell. “So after a few weeks went by, Nick suggested collecting money to be able to put Matt’s name on the wall, which is a series of plaques on the walkway leading to the museum’s main building.”
So far, all the donations have come in via word-of-mouth, but the students are only halfway toward their goal, so they’re hoping the community will pitch in and help, too. They need to raise $1,000 and just have $500.
“So I sent an e-mail about it to Westfield staff, and a teacher forwarded it to Katie Cloutier, a 2012 Westfield grad who lives in Matt’s neighborhood,” said Cowell. “She babysat both Matt and his brother when they were younger, so she’s now canvassing the neighborhood for donations.”
Anyone wishing to participate and help with the fundraising may make checks payable to Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center Wall of Honor and write “Matt Peterson Wall of Honor Fund” on the memo line. Send them to Westfield High School, c/o Chuck Cowell, 4700 Stonecroft Blvd., Chantilly, VA 20151.
“Matt’s death was just a complete shock for me, and this is a perfect link with his love of aviation,” said Cowell. “I wanted to do something for him, and I’m appreciative of Nick for coming up with this idea. Years from now, we can go there and see his name on the wall. It’s a way for our class to remember him and to say that his life mattered.”
“Matt never had an opportunity to pursue his dreams, and it’s just so tragic,” continued Cowell. “So when a life’s cut short, you want to let others know this kid touched our lives and he’s not going to be forgotten.”