Thornton Perry has worked at Bellevue College for 45 of its 50 years and has held over a dozen different jobs at the institution, from the library to the track.
Perry graduated with a master’s degree in history from Ohio State University in 1969, working in the library and as a teaching assistant there. After two years as a high school teacher and coach in Ohio, he decided to move to Washington. “Everybody back in Ohio thought I was crazy,” Perry said. At that moment in history, Boeing was struggling and unemployment in the area was very high.
Perry arrived in Seattle on Halloween, 1971. “Perhaps it’s fitting,” Perry remarked. “I don’t know because I see the world sometimes a little different than a lot of people.” Perry soon made friends, one of whom, “happened to work for the employment security department.” By the end of November, Perry had escaped “unenjoyment,” as his friend described it, and landed a 13-week federally funded job at the circulation desk in BC’s Library Media Center.
“While I was doing this, the person in charge of the circulation desk – full time employee – resigned,” Perry explained. On March 1, 1972, Perry officially became a state employee at the college as the LMC’s circulation supervisor.
Two years after Perry’s arrival, the gym on campus opened – to get there one walked a winding path through dense woods occupied by flocks of quail and meandering deer. Soon, he became the head basketball scorekeeper and timekeeper. In 1975 he established women’s track and field program, which developed from an intramural to a full-fledged varsity program under his supervision. This was three years after the passage of Title IX, before which no woman’s athletic programs existed at the college, and were scarce elsewhere.
In the following years, Perry co-produced the first three Bellevue Community College jazz festivals which he said “eventually morphed into the city of Bellevue Jazz festival,” and he became a PE instructor as well as basketball coach while maintaining his position at the circulation desk.
In 1981, Perry became a member of the history faculty. At the time the department “was very small, it had two full-time people and one part-time person.” Perry explained the state had to make cutbacks, “so they implemented a strategy that was pretty standard – see if you can get people to take early retirement.” One of the full-time instructors retired, the other knew Perry had a degree and soon asked him “Hey TP, want to teach a history class?”
Beginning in the 1980s, Walter Annenburg – who published TV Guide – began paying public television networks to produce educational content through his nonprofit, the Annenburg Foundation. “This was the dawn of distance education,” said Perry. By 1984 BC had tele-courses for math, history, chemistry and art. Perry taught some history courses using the lectures created by PBS and others.
Eventually, BC’s own channel 28 began distributing lectures filmed at the TV studio on campus, including a 40-hour course on Northwest history created by Perry. In 1988, Perry became the director of distance education and by the early 90s it was possible to get a full 90-credit transfer degree by taking telecourses alone.
Perry continued to teach and coach students and in 1999 he served as an interim OUA – organizational unit administrator, now called dean – of the social science division. Deanna Veyna, current social science division operations director, first began working at the college as an office assistant in her division that year. When she met Perry, “he was loud, vibrant and a story telling history instructor,” she stated. “Every time he came into the office it was like sitting by a warm fire as a child and being engrossed by a story that was being told by a wild frontiersman.”
Perry has watched BC grow from its fifth year to its 50th, but he warned “bigness brings bureaucracy, bureaucracy brings its own set of intrinsic problems – communication, computers not withstanding. My experience has been: ‘you can ship a lot of information back and forth real quick, but are you communicating?’”
“Today we sit behind computers and communicate with words. They are just that, words, with no feelings or expression to actually see and feel,” wrote Veyna. “I guess that is what I really like about TP. To this day he has never lost that personal touch or that sit down and talk face to face action.”
Perry retired in 2013, but has continued to teach a class or two a quarter.
“In all of these years I have known TP I have seen him dress up in slacks and shoes maybe two times, so it will a very sad day when my longtime friend decides to hang up his flip flops for a long deserved retirement. You talk about history… The day TP walks away from Bellevue College will be an historic day in itself,” wrote Veyna.