Educator learns life's lessons on the water
Somewhere between the bleached out streets of Dania, Fla. and the sun-baked and sea-sprayed atolls just beyond Key West known as the Dry Tortugas, Thomas Fryer left his life behind. In 1991, Fryer and his wife Peggy chartered a 42-foot boat for two weeks, pointed the bow south and left the stern to bid adieu to the blurry amalgamation of shopping centers, fast food restaurants, clogged roads and careers.
No phone. No television. No conflict. Just Peggy and the open sea.
“It literally changed our lives because for the first time in my life, I found something that I was really interested in other than work,” remembered Fryer, now chairman of the Florida Community College at Jacksonville trustees. “The epiphany came in that two weeks between Dania and the Dry Tortugas.
The boating thing, as insignificant as it may seem, was really a big deal. Our operating that 42-foot boat for two weeks when I scarcely knew bow from stern was the first time in my life I had been engaged fully intellectually, physically and to some extent almost spiritually. It was just . . . it was absolutely wonderful.”
For most of the previous 32 years, Fryer had toiled daily in the world of education, starting as an English teacher at Daytona Beach Junior College in 1959, moving on as an assistant president in Miami-Dade Community College and most recently as chancellor of two large community college districts in northern California.
The vacation was the capstone to three decades of tackling the fiscal, political and social headaches of America’s education system.
Fryer stepped out of the trenches of the classroom in 1962 to pursue a doctoral degree in education at the University of California at Berkeley. Two years later, he found himself in the middle of one of the most notorious West Coast student movements of the 1960s.
Between 1963 and 1964, the number of freshmen entering UC Berkeley increased by a third, many of them majoring in social sciences and humanities and other socially conscious degrees. The university’s stifling traditional views and national events like the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee finally brought the situation to a head. In September 1964, a former student wrote a letter calling for an “open, fierce and thorough rebellion” on the Berkeley campus.
“What happened was the Republicans were having their Presidential nominating convention in San Francisco and Barry Goldwater was about to be nominated,” Fryer explained. “The ideology on the Berkeley campus was all Republicans were bad and Goldwater was the worst of all. So they set up tables right at the entrance to the campus and were taking sign-up sheets for people who wanted to ride up to San Francisco and demonstrate against Goldwater.
“Goldwater obviously had allies in high places in California. He got to somebody at the university administration. At the start of all this, [university president] Clark Kerr was in Japan. Somebody from the Goldwater team got to somebody in the UC administration and said, ‘shut down those ———tables.’”
The tables were shut down and a massive protest ensued.
In 1967, Fryer bounced back to Florida as an assistant to the president of Miami-Dade Community College. He stayed long enough to launch a new campus in the heart of downtown Miami, which he describes as the “single most exciting professional assignment I’ve had.”
In 1974, the Symbionese Liberation Army assassinated Oakland schools superintendent Marcus Foster in a cloud of social and political violence. Fryer had been the chancellor of the Peralta colleges in Oakland for only three months at the time.
Suddenly he found himself in the eye of a politically and racially charged maelstrom regarding the school’s racial diversity program. Up to that point, students were required to take a course in black studies for graduation.
“It came to pass that a woman on the faculty on one of our campuses, a Jewish woman, did not at all like one of the black women on the faculty who was instrumental in creating the black studies program,” recalled Fryer. “She proposed to one of our board members that a course called the History and the Culture of the Jewish People be made to meet the ethnic studies requirement. A war broke out.”
Fryer was bombarded by members of the black community and the Jewish community each stating their case.
To appease everyone, Fryer came up with a solution for the ethnic studies program.
“At the college where black studies had been created, you could only take black studies,” he explained. “But at another one of our colleges, if you wanted to take the History and the Culture of the Jewish People, you could take it there.”
“When I look back over my career, you have no idea how politically-charged and how polarized people were and how much true hatred was at the core,” he noted.
After Peralta, he spent 14 years as the chancellor of the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District in Los Altos Hills, Calif. Throughout his career as an educator, tough decisions faced him at every turn, whether it was handling spikes of racial tension or tackling perennial funding problems.
“I feel good about it,” he continued. “I felt good about it when I did it. I feel good about it looking back on it. I wouldn’t want to do it again.”
In 1992, after his life-changing voyage to the Florida Keys, Fryer made sure he never had to do it again. He tendered his retirement papers to his California Community College, darted back to Dania with Peggy and bought a 50-foot motor yacht. The two picked up where they left off the year before, floating around the East Coast.
“We went as far north as Manhattan,” he said. “We were going farther up into New England that summer but a hurricane came through and scared us. It was Hurricane Emily, and in a boat that size, it doesn’t have to be a serious hurricane.”
The two came back down the coast, threaded through the Florida Keys, over to New Orleans and back again. Along the way, Fryer became a field editor for the Waterway Guide, which advises mariners of water depths and landmarks.
“Then we decided after about three years, we’d like to get back into a community, have a place where we can get our mail on a regular basis and have a regular telephone,” said Fryer.
Through a bevy of specific criteria, Jacksonville made the cut and Fryer and Peggy now enjoy a relaxed life in Riverside overlooking the St. Johns River. To keep his feet wet in the education world, he was appointed to FCCJ’s board of trustees two and a half years ago and was elected chair last August.
Nine years after retirement, Fryer believes he got out just in time.
“I have a rabbi friend out in Palo Alto. He’s always quoting things from the Talmud to me. He said, ‘There’s an old Talmudic expression, Tom. God sends the cure before he sends the disease.’”