In "Raising Arizona," one of their earliest movies, Joel and Ethan Coen slipped in a subtle reference to Pete Peterson, a teacher who led a high school film society that included the future famous filmmaking brothers.

It's an interesting bit of celebrity trivia, but far from the only interesting thing about Peterson. His passions included books, theater, movies, music, tennis and civil rights. He had 60 boxes of books in his Minneapolis apartment when he died, said his son, Jon, of Big Lake, who calls him "one of the smartest people I ever knew."

Peterson, 87, died Sept. 15 of cancer in his Minneapolis home, surrounded by family.

He was born in Brainerd and was a teacher for 40 years, 31 of them at St. Louis Park High School, where he taught theater, cinema, literature and media production. He directed — and occasionally played small parts in — school plays. Former students speak of him with ardent admiration.

"He was just an incredible character," said Richard Grossman of St. Paul, a former teacher and now music and video producer, who was a student of Peterson's. They kept in touch for 50 years.

"He was, in many ways, larger than life," Grossman said. "At the same time, he was just down to earth and pragmatic."

"Pete Peterson was an extraordinary teacher," said Howard Walstein of St. Louis Park, one of a group of students who, with Peterson's help, established and maintained a local FM radio station. Several broadcasting personalities got their start there, said Walstein, who owns Total Entertainment Productions and Kidsdance DJ services. "It was his influence that allowed me to hone my talents early on."

Grossman remembers a home where "there must have been 25 or 30 voluminous hardcover tomes on Franz Kafka alone. No subject was beyond him, whether it was pop culture, music, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen …"

He was deeply interested in philosophy, and to the slight annoyance of his children had a habit of turning off the TV they were watching in order to read a quote.

"As kids it was like, 'C'mon, Dad, c'mon,' " Jon Peterson said. He gave them "homework assignments" as adults. "We'd go over there and he'd have a pile of books waiting for us."

His passionate interest in the arts could get on the nerves of movie theater audiences as well, Jon said.

"He would talk, to the point that other people would shush him, about shots and angles and lighting and things like that — to a fault. It was insane," Jon said. "He just knew more about film than anybody I've ever known. … He said he loved even the worst movies because there were things he could learn in everything."

Peterson framed quotes and hung them all over his walls. One bathroom wall was covered with quotes by Jean-Paul Sartre.

"There were thousands and thousands of things on his walls," Jon said. "It looked awesome but it was pretty overwhelming."

In addition to Jon, Peterson is survived by sons Paul of Forest Lake, and Tim of Seattle, daughter Rebecca Morsching of Barnum, Minn., and seven grandchildren. Peterson requested no service and instead gave his loved ones a final "homework assignment."

"Take a long walk, go for a bike ride, play a little tennis, read a good book, watch a great play, see a significant film," Peterson had said.

Katy Read • 612-673-4583