Monday, February 21, 2011

My open letter to WWU about Prof. Perry Mills

This letter has been mailed to:

Dr. Deborah Currier, Theatre Arts - Chair
Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA
Dear Dr. Currier,

I have recently heard of Perry Mills having problems over the years with the school. I was told it would be helpful to him to communicate information regarding my opinion of his personal and professional behavior in my past relationship with him. So, I offer you my open letter on Perry.
Prof. Perry Mills
 I graduated from Western in 1984, in Psychology, Awareness and Reasoning division, with a Minor in Creative Writing. I was referred to the Theater department by my Fiction writing Professor, where I took a playwriting class to buff up my dialog. From there I was selected with a small, special group to experience a year-long screen and script writing class taught by Bob Schelonka. Perry was adviser to that class. I cannot now remember how exactly I got to know Perry, but I got to know him pretty well outside of school activities, including spending time between classes in his office, at his home and at events at his house that he sponsored.

I did everything I could to be around him because I felt my goal at school was solely, to learn. The summer after graduation, I also took a single credit individual study type class with Perry to write a full screenplay (“Ahriman”), which I got an “A” on. I wanted to leave school with a finished screenplay and I did. That later helped me to get to work with a production company for two years as an “stable” or “in-house” writer.

I have been, among other things, an IT Sr. Technical Writer and during the day now I work at Regence BlueShield on web technologies. On the side, I am currently working on original screenplays, adaptions of novels to screen for published Authors, as well as short and long fiction. I have been highly thought of in my fields of endeavor. In all my life since I met Perry, he is one of the people I have told stories about and thought most highly of among all men, in a good way, of course. When I think back on my time at Western, I think most fondly of my main Psychology adviser, Prof. Rod Rees and of course, Perry. They were heads above all others in my book. I had other great Profs, like the impressive Dr. Paul Woodring, and of course others, but Perry and Rod stand foremost out in my mind.
 Dr. Paul Woodring (Woodring College of Education at WWU)

 I got to know Perry because I was impressed by his acuity, historical even anthropological perspectives, as well as his being a born entertainer. He had a special personality that was quite unique. At times he could seem harsh in his evaluations, having little patience for stupidity or flaws in one’s personality and would serve up comments regarding these things with a wry sense of humor and if you could see it, a sense of concern for his students. One thing I noticed quickly was that if you didn’t have a certain capability of nature and intellect, you might miss that concern of his.

Perhaps giving several examples might help to get across my understanding of Perry and his worth as a teacher and a person. One day I was in his office and we were just sitting and talking. I mentioned a short story I just wrote set in medieval times (“Poor Lord Ritchie”). He offered to read it saying he had an interesting in medieval literature. He did and the next day we discussed it. He offered me some suggestions that were incredibly valuable. He said I had nailed the speech in medieval times which he was quite used to reading. He even discussed doing a one man stage play of it, but I never could work that out and it fell by the way side. Years later, the actor Rutger Hauer, chose that story as an international story of the week in a contest he was sponsoring.

I later gave Perry another story. He turned it back to me the next day with sarcastic comments on it that although funny, seemed a bit harsh, however, he was basically showing me how amateurish I was being in my prose. I was, and I admit it, overachieving and banal in adjectives and overworking my vocabulary. That was simply, like many amateur writers, how I saw pushing up the quality of your writing. It’s not.  

And so, I took it home a little crushed. But I pushed through and re-read it many times that night. What came of that was that it changed my entire way of writing. It was like I grew as a writer overnight, to several many, many months beyond where I had been. Now I could have gone to complain, or not. I didn’t and it was at that time, that I saw the value and again, was amazed by the man’s capabilities. He took chances to make me better and I appreciated it. Should I have whined, or found the value in it?

Just the other day, someone made an anonymous posting to my blog site (jzmurdock.blogspot.com). The comment was on a blog about Perry and how things were going poorly in his relationship with the school over the years. You are welcome to peruse this blog article:


The comment from the anonymous poster was:

“I was a student. The guy is a clown. He ought to be fired.”  

I knew students like that when I was in school and those who felt this way, seemed to us to be of questionable overall quality in nature. Those who were the best and brightest seemed to appreciate Perry’s vast knowledge and biting intellect. I should also say, I was never intimidated by him, fearful or offended. IF I were to have felt any of those things, I would have examined the situation in my mind, or talked to him if need be.

My posted blog response was as follows, and I think it very much sums up this situation. My fellow students that I still know and who know Perry have read this, and all agreed with me, by the way:

“I found that the only people who seem to have a problem with Perry, are those who are weak in intellect or spirit, or both. Just my opinion of course. Of all my university Profs I learned more and faster from Perry than anyone else. It wasn't easy, sometimes it was a bit painful, but I took it, and considered why, and in the end, learned a lot. It’s interesting to note, how a good group of people got nothing from his teaching, and others got so much. It would also seem that those who did indeed feel they learned a lot from him, were somewhat in awe of him, and have little sympathy for those who did not. Still, all the best to you all and I hope life is easy on you."

I hope life is easy on them because they will need it. Perry doesn’t pull his punches sometimes. Because life doesn’t. Some years after I left school, 1992 to be exact, I had a bad divorce come about. I went to Bellingham for a weekend away and called Perry. We talked on the phone and he said I should come over to that perfect little house of his. We talked and he said I should spend the weekend in his loft, in his shop out back. He had said, “Sure you might as well, all the suddenly divorced guys seem to end up here.” I believe this speaks to his true nature as a humanitarian.

I have a fond memory of breakfast the next day with him in his backyard, sitting at a picnic table in a warm and sunny morning. I should also mention, one of the “divorced guys” who ended up in that loft was an alumnus, Doug, who went on to be an author of a best seller and whose writings lead to a miniseries. I know of others went on to found acting theaters such as Seattle’s Annex Theater.

Deep down Perry cares greatly, but I’m sure there are many who haven’t a clue of that, who cannot or will not, try to take the time to understand what he is saying, or to take the time to think about what has happened between them; to use their minds, which they are at school to enable, to push above and beyond, and to realize what it’s all about.

I will close now with this…If Perry is having trouble with some individuals, perhaps this can be worked out by the school? All hearings in my belief, should be open to the public; what is there to fear? If Perry was wrong, let it come out; if not, let’s hear it.

Does Perry sometimes have singular techniques for achieving change in a student or person? Yes, absolutely. Should everyone be able to “get it?” No, I rather think not. That would be nice, but truly it’s not reasonable. I can think of many Profs whom I got little from, but others got much from. They were just not so controversial.

A university is not a place to coddle youngsters. It is a place of Higher Learning. To me a good Prof is one who does shake things up once in a while. Administration is not there to second guess them; they are there, in my humble opinion if you will forgive me, to support their Tenured Professors. Yes, they are there to support the students, of course. But how many students do you have in a year who are troubled, defective in thought, sadly educated not just in academia , culture and mores, but also in a variety of strength of character, perseverance, patience and understanding? Those types, perhaps, do not work that well with Perry. Well, there are other Professors for them, in that case.

In my opinion, speaking to the Perry I had known for many years, he is a benefit to academia and we need people like him. Even if he does not follow the formats of established method. Don’t get me wrong, we need those too who do not rock the boat; who do not disturb the Administration, but we need also and always, those like Perry who challenge our natures and push our limits. When I think back now of Western, after so many years from my graduation, two things come to mind: the Western Old Main building, and Perry. Icons, in my mind. I had never imagined that one day I would be considering one or the other would be gone by other than old age and respectful ceremony.

All the best to you and those doing such admirable work at WWU. I do hope you find a way to maintain a stable and workable situation that includes my old teacher and friend, Perry Mills.

Yours truly.


About Perry Mills:

Perry F. Mills was hired by the founder of the CFPA, William Gregory, to further the liberal arts component of the Fine and Performing Arts curriculum.  For thirty years he has taught aesthetics, film, dramatic literature, playwriting and patience. His book on film studies is out of print and in the WWU Wilson Library. His playwriting students have won numerous awards and have plays in current productions in NYC and London. Take a class with Perry if you want a sample of academic diversity: he’s not good-looking, but he’s hard to kill…

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