Peter’s story

Peter talen’s death in a fire brought light to the important issue of students and fire safety

When UW-L theatre Associate Professor Mary Leonard approached Jim Jorstad, ’78, to create a documentary about theatre performance major Peter Talen, Jorstad had no idea the impact the project would have. Talen was killed in a Madison apartment fire in November 2007 when visiting his brother. Later it was discovered none of the smoke detectors was working.

peter's story

UW-L student Peter Talen, below, from Plymouth, died Nov. 18, 2007, in a fire while visiting his brother in Madison. The death might have been prevented with working smoke detectors.

Leonard and Jorstad traveled to Madison to interview Talen’s brother, Andy, and several students involved in the fire.“I remember how gripping the initial interviews were,” recalls Jorstad.

The stories of how the fire started and how it impacted lives motivated Jorstad to drive to UW-Stevens Point one weekend to check on his daughter’s college apartment for working smoke detectors. Although Jorstad’s daughter, Jena, reacted to Jorstad as being a typical overly protective parent, none of her detectors were working. One of her roommates had recently removed the battery after burning a pizza. “It was then that I knew I had to get this project completed,” Jorstad explains.

Leonard and Jorstad obtained funding from the UW-L Foundation and the Theatre Department. Professor Emeritus Ron Rada and Dan Sweetman, in UW-L’s Environmental Health and Safety Department, obtained additional funding from UW System and the project was off and running.

“Involvement in its production shows we can make a difference,” says Jorstad, director of UW-L’s Academic Technology Department. With today’s technology, the video is being seen worldwide. “The impact of the video is dramatic and it affects positive change,” notes Jorstad. “It will leave a lasting impression,” he says.

“Peter’s Story” talks about who Talen was and his impact on those around him. The story is told by people who knew him best — family, friends, teachers and students. And it illustrates what can happen when we forget about something as simple as a smoke detector.

Kelly Shattuck, a friend of Talen who survived the fire, uses the video in elementary education classes she teaches. She says kids are “simply stunned” when they see the story and quickly learn the importance of smoke detectors.

Jorstad has received e-mails from across the country telling him how emotional and powerful “Peter’s Story” is. He encourages faculty, staff, students and parents to watch it. “It will leave a lasting impression,” he says.

View the video at

  • Because of Talen’s death, a smoke detector ordinance in his name was passed in Madison in March 2009.
  • UW-L’s Theatre Arts Department and the Talen family have created a memorial scholarship in Peter’s name. The Peter J. Talen Scholarship — — will help fund a first-year theatre major at UW-L.

Featured in the Winter 2011-12 Magazine