The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


Remembering the life of Dr. Peter Gifford

Photo courtesy of Daniela Huebner, taken from Giffords service program.
Photo courtesy of Daniela Huebner, taken from Gifford’s service program.

Beep. Beep. Beep. The loud siren blares from Katie O’Neil’s bedside alarm clock. It’s 8:30 a.m. Slapping the alarm’s snooze button and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she slowly gets ready for her first class of the day: Wellness.

“Even though it was an early class, Dr. Gifford always made it worth it,” said O’Neil, a former student of Dr. Peter Gifford’s.

Gifford spent 41 years at SMU, serving as a teacher, mentor and inspiration to many of his students and fellow colleagues. As the former department chair and associate professor of applied physiology and wellness, he strived to live each day to the fullest.

Gifford had pancreatic cancer and passed away early this November, but he never let his illness slow him down. He taught senior applied physiology courses all the way up until May 2014.

“He was 69, but he always seemed like he was 35,” said his wife, Diane Gifford.

Everyone agreed that Gifford was special. The SMU community held a memorial service for Gifford on Nov. 21, and hundreds of family members, friends, faculty, staff and students packed inside the Perkins Chapel to honor and commemorate his life.

“The ceremony was beautiful,” said Chris Scott, a former student of Gifford’s. “It was great to remember what he’s built, especially in a program that I was a part of.”

Photo courtesy of Daniela Huebner, taken from Gifford's service program.

Gifford was born in Winchester, Mass. on May 7, 1945. He grew up in the nearby town of Newton before going on to obtain his master’s degree and Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology at the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University.

He came to SMU in 1973 with a strong concept of wellness and how it should be implemented into the curriculum. He went out and researched dozens of different universities around the country to compare their wellness programs, but no one really had anything to offer. Gifford changed that. He pioneered the program at SMU, which became the model for anyone who wanted to look at a really great wellness program.

“He believed there was something about your own self agency that you needed to develop in order to become a well person,” said David Chard, Dean of the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development. “He hired people that he believed could deliver that message.”

The Wellness program at SMU is two-fold, but its overall focus is to offer classes that reflect the University’s philosophy of a well-rounded education enhancing the social, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual welfare of students.

PRW I is a one credit hour course required for graduation that is designed to strengthen the relationship between the student and the University. The course focuses on the transition into college and how to live a healthy and balanced lifestyle. PRW II is a fitness course also required for graduation that focuses on the physical side of well-being. Students can choose from a variety of individual and fitness classes, including power yoga, weight training, rock climbing, jogging and even scuba.

Working as a PRW I and senior applied physiology instructor, Gifford’s lessons reached many students. He was always involved in many aspects of campus life. He even played his hand as the PRW II ping pong teacher one year.

“He played every class, talking to each person and telling them what they needed to do to improve,” said Samantha Canonico, one of Gifford’s four daughters. He also had a son. “He never felt like he was above his students.”

Gifford believed that wellness plays a major role in each person’s life. He always said that if you have the desire and affirmation to make it a great day, it’s going to become a great day. He was an inspiration to those in his private life as well as public life.

“He always cared,” said Canonico.

Gifford received numerous letters from former students before he passed. One of those former students, a male in his 30s, had been on and off battling cancer for quite some time. He was depressed and didn’t want to live anymore. But after looking back and remembering Gifford’s teachings, even from so long ago, he decided to take on a positive attitude and became determined to beat his illness. And he did.

“He was just one of those people where every time you met with him, you walked away with a little something that you didn’t have before,” said Chard.

Gifford was passionate. He believed and communicated to his students that each person gets to decide their future, whether you’re going to have a good day or a bad day, it’s all under your control.

“He always said that you can’t try, you either do it or you don’t do it,” said Diane Gifford. “He believed that, he told his students that, and he taught that.”

Photo courtesy of the Department of Applied Physiology & Wellness.

He wanted to empower his students, to break them out of their shell. He thought that each one was special and could contribute things to him that he didn’t already have. Before each semester, Gifford would print out the names and photographs of each of his students and study them carefully so that he could acknowledge them by name.

“Going to class and seeing this man smile just put all of my troubles and worries aside,” said Scott. “It was incredible to see a man so proud of life.”

Both inside and outside of the classroom, Gifford inspired all those around him with his positive energy, radiant smile and uplifting spirit. He was a loving and giving father, husband and friend. His wife Diane has four binders full of songs he wrote for her. His family members said they could count on one hand the number of times he ever got upset, and it usually involved something mechanical.

“He was always smiling,” said daughter Lauren Gifford. “I think that’s something he’ll be remembered for.”

While Gifford struggled with many health issues, including two knee and hip replacement surgeries, he was always optimistic, even in his final days. He never complained, but instead focused on making every experience a positive one.

“We had many discussions, toward the end especially, where I asked him how I was going to do this, how I was going to live without him,” said Diane Gifford. “And he said to me, ‘you have to get up every day and you have to say you’re going to make it a great day, and you might not believe it at first, but eventually it’s going to be a great day.’”

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