Time, charged with meaning

A conversation with Ron Thomas

Puget Sound's new president is a '60s political activist, a builder of community, a quoter of Tennyson, and a Springsteen fan. He's found UPS to be as good as the best colleges in America, and it's time, he says, for the rest of the nation to find that out, too.

By Chuck Luce, editor of Arches

Right off the bat, you should know that Ron Thomas likes stories. He likes hearing them. He likes telling them. He likes watching them develop--he is a ceaseless observer: To him, the world is a million stories in process, each one intensely visual, almost cinematic. And in the University of Puget Sound he sees a really good adventure tale that is still being told.

"I've been focusing a good deal of time these first few months on going out and listening to people," he says. "I want to know the stories."

What he's hearing is that there are many Universities of Puget Sound and many different experiences of the place, and each person who studied or taught at the college contributed to its evolution. That, he says, is an attribute all colleges share to a degree, but not with the same nuances he senses here.

"This school has occupied three different sites in Tacoma and it has had three different names. It developed satellite campuses. It was an academy at one time, as well as a college," he says. "But the excitement and the distinction of this place is that those are all chapters in a bigger narrative. Every one of those parts in our history is important and each contributes to who we are today.

"I wanted to be continually reminded of that--I wanted the stories right in front of me. So when it came time to decorate my office, I went over to the archives and had copies made of historic photographs. I got a picture of the staff and faculty of 1906. The football team of 1908. A pep squad. The World War II airmen. Jack Kennedy, when he visited campus."

Thomas, whose rimless glasses, neatly combed-back brown hair, and square jaw give him the appearance of Teddy Roosevelt without the mustache, points out a sepia hanging on his wall. In it a dozen bearded men wearing vested suits and stovepipe hats stare out with dour expressions. One character stands with his right hand stuffed behind his lapel, Napoleon-like. "These guys, I'm not quite sure who they are," he says. "I've got their names, but nobody knows why they were photographed. Methodist ministers, maybe. I just love their look of resolve and determination."

Thomas's tone is down-to-earth, not overly professorial, although he sometimes slips a word like "dialectical" into normal conversation. He smiles a lot, is prone to hyperbole when joking, and often greets college staff with a pat on the back, the way an athlete would after a teammate made a good play.

Beneath all this, though, is a line of serious intensity. One senses that, like the bearded men in the photo on his office wall, Thomas, too, will apply considerable resolve to the accumulating narrative that is the University of Puget Sound.


Traversing boundaries
Thomas grew up in the seaside town of Ocean Grove, New Jersey, where both his parents had careers in education, although they did not come to their work by ordinary means.

His father, Bob Thomas, worked in data processing and record-keeping at National Oil Products Company in Newark. Then, after moving to Ocean Grove, he became the purchasing agent for Monmouth College, now Monmouth University, in West Long Branch.

Thomas describes his dad as devoted, thoughtful, extraordinarily careful, artistic, and verbally gifted, but quiet.

"A very intelligent fellow. Great sense of humor. He never saw a pun he didn't succumb to," Thomas says.

His father played baseball in high school--at 6'4", a presence at the plate--and has always been a rabid Yankees fan.

"My father took my sister and me to Yankee Stadium a couple times every year. Those were the days of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra. Even for the storied Yankees, it was an electric time in their history. I remember, once, we parked in back of the stadium. It was a very exciting game--I think I actually caught a foul ball--and in the frenzy my father lost his keys. He didn't realize this until after the game, when we were out in the parking lot, so he asked us to stay at the car while he went back in. As we waited, the players came out of the team entrance, and a crowd of fans applauded each one. Suddenly my father emerged from the same door and people cheered and a bunch of kids gathered around him for his autograph. I remember that scene, in part, because that's how I saw him--as a larger-than-life character."

Doris Thomas, his mother, was active in church as a Sunday school instructor. When asked to substitute teach in a nearby elementary school, she convinced the principal to let her take over a second grade class that was losing its teacher, then went to night school to earn her certification and had a long career in the classroom.

"My father is cautious. My mother is not," Thomas laughs. "She's eager, active, adventurous, much more social. Her maiden name is Rambo. No kidding. My father is more reflective. I do think I'm a combination of the two, but in personality I'm more like my mother. Her walking into a school principal's office and getting him to hire her as a full-time teacher, having never been a day in college, always impressed me. She believed she could do it, therefore she could."

Despite their accomplishments, Thomas says his parents are modest, and content remaining close to home. They also are deeply religious, and Ron and his older sister, Ruth Ann, received a strong, though not overbearing, Christian upbringing.

"My spiritual training was a very powerful, informing ethos. Although I don't today have a disciplined religious life in the conventional sense," says Thomas, "my interest in intellectual things, I think, came out of this training. The church we went to was very text-centered and very much based on biblical exegesis. Church services were long, and the sermon was the longest part. Early on I developed a real appreciation for textual exposition, an appreciation for the power of language."

Thomas's parents still live in Ocean Grove, in the same bungalow where he grew up.

Ocean Grove is a subdued oasis among the arcades and saltwater taffy shops of other resort towns along the Jersey shore. It was founded in 1869 by William Osborn, a Methodist minister who had been inspired by the evangelistic camp meetings of the early 19th century. Osborn envisioned a permanent religious retreat where Christians could restore their spiritual vitality. The strict rules of his enclave--it was, for example, illegal to operate a carriage, bathe in the Atlantic, or purchase liquor on Sundays--and the community's enduring utopian plan froze it in time.

"The character of Ocean Grove today is very much Victorian," says Thomas. "There's not a single amusement, not a single commercial enterprise along the boardwalk. There's an open-air auditorium--the site of summer revival meetings to this day--and bathhouses, and that's all."

Pressing down hard on Ocean Grove from the north is Asbury Park, the hometown of rock icon Bruce Springsteen. (Springsteen's bass player, Garry Tallent, sat in front of Thomas in home room at Neptune High School.)

"Ocean Grove was Apollonian to the Dionysian Asbury Park," says Thomas. "Asbury Park is where we went for fun."

And so was the beach.

"We spent a lot of time there. Every waking hour, all year round, in wet suits. I know it's hard for West Coasters to believe. When we weren't in school or working at our summer jobs, there was a group of us who loved to surf."

Thomas's January birthday makes him an Aquarian. Although he gives no credence to astrology, he says he has always felt a connection to water and an affinity for traversing boundaries--such as that of ocean and land.

"Being in two different worlds--that's part of what living near the water is about. I feel comfortable in a constantly changing dynamic environment. In the ocean's waves there is a threat of being swept away, but also a challenge to hit just the right spot and take advantage of the power."

His surfboard and wet suit are still under his parents' porch in New Jersey. Thomas says he'll retrieve them someday. "I'll probably need new technology on the wet suit, though," he laughs. "It's a little out of date."


The times they are a-changing
Thomas was a good student in school. The first inkling he had that his calling might be in the arts and literature was in a junior high English class. He remembers the teacher, not particularly fondly, as "a grammatical militant," but she helped him discover a talent for writing. He won an essay contest that year on "What America Means to Me." And the next year he won a poetry contest and earned his first publication in a national collection of student poetry. Later, as a high school sophomore in another notoriously tough English teacher's class, Thomas surprised himself by doing well. He took on the school newspaper's sports editor slot, writing in a style that didn't exactly embrace the principles of Strunk and White.

"My voice then was sort of a mixture of Homer, Howard Cosell, and Frank Deford on steroids," he says.

Despite these early indications, the political climate of the era and the education in social conscience he was receiving at home diverted his thinking away from literature and composition. He tells the story of a favorite economics teacher who wrote a number on the blackboard at the beginning of each class.

"One day it was 470,076. I can still visualize every digit. He just chalked it up there and didn't talk about it, but we all knew what it was. It was the number of American troops fighting in Vietnam."

The nation was in transition--between the complacent years following World War II, and a churning decade of national soul searching--and Thomas found himself again crossing boundaries.

In 1967, when he matriculated at Wheaton College (Illinois), Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night," was Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards. But also in '67 The Doors released "Light My Fire." It was the year Christiaan Barnard performed the first successful human heart transplant, and the year of the Six-Day War in the Middle East. It was the year Congress created PBS, and the year of the Detroit race riots. That spring, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated. People, he recalls, were losing the leisure of not taking a political position.

"Attending Wheaton was a point of contention in my family," he says. "If my parents had had their way, I'd have gone to a Bible college. If it had been my choice, I would have gone to Princeton. [Thomas was admitted there.] But since Billy Graham had attended Wheaton, it was OK with the folks. Wheaton was a compromise, but I ended up getting a really good education there."

Being just outside Chicago, the city, too, became his lecture hall: The 1968 Democratic Convention. The Chicago Eight. Operation Breadbasket. The Rainbow Coalition. The Chicago Film Festival. It was, to borrow a phrase from the era, a mind-expanding environment for a kid from the Jersey shore.

"My interest in politics threw me into involvement with Jesse Jackson's organization. I began thinking less about conventional professions and more about commitment to causes that were important," he recalls. "There seemed to be an immediacy to the events. I attended the funeral of two Blackstone Rangers who were killed by FBI agents in a shootout. I'll never forget the experience. It was one of those things that made ideals and principles very real, very real. No longer theoretical. It was a time, as Tennyson said, 'to strive, to seek, to find, but not to yield.'"

From societal imperative to solace for the soul, the arts also kept asserting themselves while Thomas was in college, and he finally gave in.

"I never was involved in theater or dramatics in high school. In fact, it was not something that would have been reinforced in my family. Perhaps that was part of the attraction. In any case, I auditioned for a play at college and got a major part. It was in Midsummer Night's Dream; I was a confused lover."

He continued to act, winning parts in Shakespeare, Beckett, and original student plays, but Thomas stops short of saying he had fun in college. "It was not a time of frivolity," he says. "Colleagues of ours were being shot at by National Guardsmen and dying in Vietnam--yet the discovery and thrill of becoming part of a creative world of discipline was something new and exciting."


Literary life, discovered
Thomas says he became an English major by accident.

"I started out intending to go into law, and I took introduction to philosophy--absolutely loved it. I also took a required course in Western literature, and breezed through that, while most people didn't. It seemed like pleasure more than work.

"And I met a couple of mentors. That's probably why I appreciate higher education so much, especially the kind offered at places like Puget Sound--the opportunity to have those mentor relationships."

Two professors really stand out in his mind. One was a Shakespearean, E. Beatrice Batson, who, he says, was British not just in origin, but in demeanor and style, someone who had a kind of elegance and seriousness about her. Thomas found her approach to literature tremendously challenging and engaging.

The other was Clyde Kilby, who taught romantic poetry, but also C.S. Lewis and other fantasy-literature authors.

"He was almost like a character from a Tolkien book, like a hobbit, in certain respects," says Thomas of Kilby. "He had a kind of wit, a twinkle in his eye, a kind of charm. He'd ask a provocative question and never give an answer. I remember going over to his house for dinner a number of times, with friends. He had a parakeet that flew around and sat on his shoulder during the meal; cats mewing at his feet. But what I really remember about him was just going into his office and his sort of sitting back and saying, 'Well … what are you thinking about today?'"

By his senior year Thomas's growing penchant for performance and theater had coalesced into an interest in film, and for a graduate program he applied to the film schools at UCLA, USC, Columbia, Boston U, and NYU. At the time, the best in the country was USC, and they admitted him, but so did BU for the January term. Thomas decided Boston was where he should go next.

"I had friends there who were starting a film company called Clear Light Productions, and they asked me to work with them. We started out doing things like multimedia shows, using an extravaganza of 12 screens and 24 projectors, emerging out of the popular culture of the rock scene at the time."

He never did register at USC or BU.

"When January came I figured, why should I go to school to learn how to do this? I already am."

After four years the company was still going, but Thomas decided he liked writing better than production. He began freelancing while taking graduate courses at Boston College, and being on the BC campus reignited in him a love for academic settings. He formally applied to graduate school.

"I had a kind of livelihood, so I only applied to schools that were in Boston, and Brandeis had an edge that attracted me. Brandeis also gave me the best deal. I taught my first year there, and loved it. I realized that this was the real direction my career should take."

Thomas says he at first had no intention of going into Victorian literature, his eventual specialty, but he wanted to read the great novels because he felt he had to learn more about narrative if he was to be a screen writer, which was his initial reason for going to grad school. But that impulse gradually subsided as he got further and further into scholarship.

Although it was a risky time to enter a Ph.D. program in English--there were no academic jobs--he completed his thesis, "Dream, Power, and Authority in the 19th-Century Novel," a revision of which became his first book. Among Thomas's other books is one with the intriguing title Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science (Cambridge University Press, 1999). Like all Thomas's scholarship, it's about stories and how they shape lives and cultural institutions. It looks at how technology such as fingerprinting, photography, and lie detectors helped make possible a new category of literature in Britain and America during the 19th century. The book reads in a way that's hardly what Conan Doyle would have called "elementary," but it is not as abstruse as a lot of literary criticism and still sells briskly at $65 a copy. It attracted a rave review in the "Arts and Ideas" section of The New York Times.

If fingerprinting is law enforcement's "true story" of individual identity according to Thomas's Detective Fiction, the practice of modern mapmaking becomes a kind of political legend-making in his third book, Nineteenth-Century Geographies: The Transformation of Space from the Victorian Age to the American Century. Now he's writing a book on the invention of cinema, which shows how movies are essentially novels transformed into light and shadow.

In 1982 Thomas landed a job in the English department at the University of Chicago, where his colleagues were guys like Norman Maclean and Saul Bellow. He returned to the East Coast in 1990 to join the English faculty at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. There, he received awards for teaching, was a Mellon fellow at Harvard for a year, and eventually was wooed into administration by then President Tom Gerety, who predicted Thomas would be a college president one day. Thomas headed the Trinity English department for six years, then became vice president and chief of staff under President Evan Dobelle, directing implementation of the campus master plan and advancing Trinity's widely recognized and successful engagement with the community. In 2001-2002 he was acting president, while Trinity conducted a search for its 19th president.

At Trinity, too, he met his future wife, Mary. Thomas first saw her at a freshman seminar meeting, right after he'd arrived in Hartford, but the two didn't actually speak until the campus holiday party that year. By January they were on a dinner date, and six months later, in June of 1991, they were married in Florence. The couple has returned to Italy nearly every year since.

"It's a special place for us," Thomas says. "I remember the very first time I came out of the train station in Venice. It was like I had ascended suddenly into paradise."


At Puget Sound, stunned first impressions
Thomas often talks in metaphors. To him the University of Puget Sound and the city of Tacoma were surprise gifts, wrapped in the blue-gray of the Sound and forest green and glacier white. He opened the boxes and was delighted with their contents.

"While the things I knew about UPS were very positive, I have to say that they nowhere near approached the reality of the place. I wasn't prepared for such a beautiful campus. I was not prepared for such an accomplished faculty. I was not prepared for such resourceful, creative, curious students. And I was not prepared for a college that, without any pretense, takes itself as seriously as it does. … I mean that in the most positive sense. The ethos of the place is one that is very dedicated, very natural, and yet extraordinarily accomplished. I've taught at Chicago, Harvard, Trinity, and Brandeis, but I never have respected an institution more than I do Puget Sound already. And the more I learn, the more my respect grows."

One of Thomas's goals early in his administration is to help others appreciate Puget Sound as he does. But he is careful not to come off sounding too boastful. The college's quiet self-confidence, he says, is also a very positive attribute.

"There's something deeply humane and humble about the soul and spirit of this college. That kind of integrity I deeply admire and have fallen in love with. It's something I'm immensely proud of, even though I can't take any credit for what's been accomplished. At the same time, it's important to say who we are, with clear eyes, not so much with the sin of pride, but with the virtue of accomplishment."

Thomas is wasting no time getting the word out. Staff members are developing a strategic communications plan, redesigning the student-recruitment "viewbook," and revamping the university Web site.

As for Tacoma, Thomas is grateful to have arrived at a time of ascendancy for the city. He sees in it similarities to Hartford, Conn., Trinity's hometown. The two cities are about the same size. Both have working-class roots: Hartford in munitions manufacturing and textiles; Tacoma in shipping and natural resources. Both fell on hard times but are discovering new life in tourism, education, the arts, and white collar jobs. Both are luring residents back into their cores.

In nearly a dozen small meetings with local alumni, Thomas is finding that people lament the college's apparent withdrawal from participation and leadership in the community. He thinks this is a two-tiered problem. The first may be a matter of perception.

"If you look at leadership in the region politically, culturally, business-wise, Puget Sound graduates are everywhere," he says. "By performing our educational mission of producing informed citizens in a democratic society, we are very much involved with the community, because a strong percentage of our graduates stay and become leaders. Moreover, our faculty and staff not only live in the community but are active in a wide range of organizations, often in positions of leadership. I endorse this participation and want to encourage even more."

That's on the individual level, he notes. On the institutional level, the nation hungers for informed, honest, moral leadership that is not now being provided in sufficient quantity by established political or commercial institutions. In a community of Tacoma's scale, the university can make an impact, Thomas believes.

"We bring a perspective that is not offered by other elements within this society. We are, as academics, trained to be critics, to scrutinize. We also do what we do to make the world a better place. We're not doing it to get wealthy, that's clear. And I think we need to reassert that moral position more strongly and be confident in the opportunity for us to be present in this community."

But how can Puget Sound increase both its visibility nationally and its civic engagement locally? Isn't that taking on too much?

"I don't see the two activities as incompatible in any way," Thomas says. "In both my experience and in my conviction, I think that national prominence and local leadership are not alternatives to one another, but are part of one continuous journey, in that the best foundation for national prominence is local leadership. I see those as equally important strategic objectives. We need first to establish relationships and a sense of credibility and good faith with our neighbors."


A unified adventure
Aside from lifting the bushel on the University of Puget Sound, Thomas is dividing his attention among other initiatives, some project oriented, some ongoing.

Planning for the new science center continues apace, with groundbreaking possibly coming as early as autumn 2004. And a new campus master plan, due to be completed a year from now, will plot physical improvements at Puget Sound through 2024, the centennial of the college's arrival at its North End location.

"I'm a strong believer in the power of place," he says. "A good master plan doesn't just site buildings, it discovers a destiny. Our place is a particularly powerful one-the fine detail and human scale of our Gothic architecture nestled in a winding river of magnificent fir trees, overseen by mountain ranges, poised over the Sound that is our namesake, and embedded in a great city. The master plan will discover our destiny in these details."

A liberal arts loyalist, Thomas is also a big believer in Puget Sound's interdisciplinary programs, like International Political Economy, Science Technology and Society, Environmental Studies, and Business and Leadership.

"Ideas have consequences," he maintains, "and the best thinking makes a difference in the ways we live: We do that well here."

He's passionate about sports, too, and is often seen expressing that passion at volleyball and soccer matches, football and basketball games.

"My heart broke when our women lost that quarter-final national championship soccer game against Chicago; but I couldn't have been more proud of them--they left it all out there on the pitch."

But Thomas keeps coming around to the remarkable alumni he has met and tries to summarize his aspirations for them with, what else, a story.

"I was at a Legacy Society dinner the other night. I had to prepare a few remarks, and I thought about the word 'legacy.' It can mean a gift of money, of course, as it did in this instance. But in fact that's the second meaning of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary. [Thomas actually keeps a copy of the "compact" OED on his reference shelf, all 2,386 pages of it.] The first meaning comes from the root 'leg,' a limb that extends out from the body, a branch, an extension. The word 'delegation,' for example, means sending out a message from the body into the world.

"Which suggests the importance of legacy, the human extension of this place. I've been so impressed by the alumni, by their humaneness, their accomplishment, their affection for this institution. But the thing that they are sometimes missing is the sense of being a part of a unified adventure.

"I'm a student of narrative, after all, and I tend to see things in literary terms. I remember one of my mentors describing a story as 'time, charged with meaning.' One of the things I want to do is help our alumni see their connection to the college, to charge their time and ours with meaning. We're not just a cluster of beautiful Tudor Gothic buildings set on a hill in Tacoma; we are the people who live the tale. We all contributed, and the next step we'll take together. That's our story."