NOAA NovemberNovember2005

We are all normal — after a fashion

by David L. Perry ’73, alumni association president


I was at a volunteer weekend at Reed many years ago and was listening to the then-admission dean speak. He had had a long conversation with a woman who’d insisted that “Reed students aren’t normal,” and spent a long time on the phone trying to argue her out of this. I said to him, “That’s an argument you won’t win, because she’s right — Reed students aren’t normal!”

If looks could kill, you’d now be reading someone else in this space. I went on explain that Reed students are much more intelligent than normal, and this intelligence (and its applications) give us a slant on the world that is decidedly atypical. We perceive a lot about the world that others just don’t see, and perceive it differently, at that. While most choose to accept the “conventional wisdom” about life, we tend to be iconoclasts, questioning even the most widely held “truths” of those around us. “Because I said so,” never works on a Reedie. (Unfortunately, it also doesn’t work on our kids.) Given our differences in perception with most people, we often move in directions that are thought to be inscrutable, bizarre, or even dangerous to those who don’t understand us. This said, most of us do end up with jobs, spouses (or significant others), and kids. We drive cars, buy houses, join churches (yes, despite our reputation for being irreligious, many of us do), and work for volunteer organizations. On the surface, we may look quite normal to those around us. But scratch the surface, and watch out: Reed students (and Reed graduates) really aren’t normal at all. Which (in my book, at least) is not a bad thing.


Speaking of jobs, there is a widely held belief that a liberal arts education is useless when it comes to employment. Too many times I’ve heard (as an admission volunteer) parents ask of their high school student “so what are you going to do when you get out with a history/lit/phil/et al degree?”, implying that we graduates are over-educated and unemployable when we leave and that we never make the money that business grads from State U. manage to rake in. It’s true that there’s not a direct career path, graduation-to-job, for a history or psych major as there is for someone with an engineering or accounting degree. (But when I was at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business, the program was full of accountants and engineers who wanted to get out of accounting and engineering.) It’s true that many of us knock about quite a bit after graduating — but what’s wrong with that? Once we settle into the employment picture, not only do we get jobs, we get the best jobs available.

Let me give you some examples of people I know personally, met either while I was at Reed, or through the college since I graduated in 1973. Where to start? How about Steve Falk ‘83, city manager of Lafayette, California. Or David Gossett, ’91, attorney, and winner of a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Or investment bankers Ray Coyne ’71, Konrad Alt ’81, and Tony Fisher ’80. Who’s the rare-books librarian at the American Museum of Natural History? Why, none other than Leslie Overstreet ’71. Who’s executive vice president of research & development at Amgen, the world’s best-known biotech company? My freshman roommate, Roger Perlmutter ’73, a lit major at Reed (and profiled in this magazine a few issues back). How about Steve Raichlen ‘75, French major, who is the world’s leading expert on barbecue, host of his own TV show (Barbecue University), and best-selling cookbook author with several million books sold. (When I met Steve in August, he said to me “I use my Reed education every day.” I believe it.) Bronwyn Carlton ‘74 writes (are you surprised?) comic books.

One of my favorite Reed stories is that of Keith Martin ’73, who graduated with me as a dance major. He loved to dance, and was the artistic director of Ballet Oregon for many years. When the energy (or money, perhaps) for that ran out, he picked up another of his interests — sports cars — and started his own magazine, Keith Martin’s Sports Car Market. Keith is now a world-recognized expert on the sports cars market. If you want to purchase a Ferrari, you can ask (and pay) a Reed dance major for his advice.

Not everyone’s work is so exotic — I’m a commercial real estate appraiser, JR Russell ’74 is a Farmer’s Insurance agent, Miriam Moore ‘98 is a computer whiz, and Robin Tovey ’97 did public relations in the world before her company crashed and she returned to work for Reed. (Robin may have an “ordinary” job, but she’s an extraordinary person. She was born without arms or legs, whizzes around Portland in a motorized wheelchair, and has writing more legible than mine!). The list goes on and on, the point being that — contrary to what many think — we don’t sit around in the unemployment line with our history or theater degrees. (Theater majors? How about playwright Lee Blessing ’71, or Eric Overmyer ’73, executive producer of TV show Law & Order? I don’t know them, but I’m familiar with their work — and you probably are, too).

So how do you get into business school without any business courses on your Reed transcript? How do you become the executive producer for one of the most popular TV shows of all time without majoring in film or TV? How do you become a leading expert in something like barbecue or sports cars after graduating from a college that doesn’t offer a single course in a field that even seems related?

I’m not sure I know how, but I’m sure I know that we do. You get the point. (Of course, you’re probably doing something that has nothing to do with your major, but you’re doing quite well, anyway.) After all, you’ve got to be smart to get into Reed, and you’ve got to work hard to graduate. On the whole, we end up doing quite well in life. Even if, once the veneer is rubbed through, we’re a little different way down deep.