“Professor [John Curtis] Perry is like a father figure to me,” Sung-Yoon Lee, a Kim Koo-Korea Foundation professor of Korean Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said about his long-time East Asia studies professor.
John Curtis Perry, who was a messenger boy, a student, a soldier and a teacher before he began his 35-year career as a professor of East Asian and Maritime Studies at the Fletcher School. This past May, he retired from teaching, but he still remains an active member of the Fletcher community as a researcher and writer.
“I’ve had 52 years of classroom teaching, and I decided that I would celebrate my 85th birthday this year by stepping down from teaching,” Perry said. “In part [I left] because I wanted to explore other things, and also because I’ve become quite deaf and that’s a handicap in seminar, because you can’t catch, sometimes, conversations that students have with each other.”
Perry, who grew up outside Washington, D.C., recalled reading stories about the Civil War as a child. These stories, he said, first sparked his curiosity about history.
“I was interested in the Civil War, reading some boy’s books about the Civil War, and I realized that it had taken place in part near where I was living,” Perry said. “And I happened to go to the library, and I found a book with a map that showed the fortifications of Washington … Well, I got on my bike and I went around with the map and tried to find these fortifications, and to my amazement, some were still visible as mounds in the backyards of peoples’ houses and so forth…and that gave me a sense of the immediacy of history and the tangibility of it.”
Perry attributed his interest in diplomacy and foreign affairs to being exposed to children of diplomats while attending the Sidwell Friends School in D.C., where he experienced “a sense of a wider world than [he] would have otherwise.”
Looking to turn his interest in foreign affairs and history into a job, Perry leafed through the yellow pages of a phone book and began contacting embassies, trying to find one that would give him work.
“I started with Afghanistan: ‘No, we don’t need anybody to help,’” he said. “Belgium, Brazil, Chile: ‘No, sorry, sorry’… China: ‘Well, yeah, we do need a messenger boy. Why don’t you come over and we’ll have a look at you and we’ll decide whether it’s an appropriate job, whether you’re good enough for us.’ So I went over, I got the job and so that was my first direct exposure to East Asia.”
This lucky incident led Perry to major in Chinese Studies as an undergraduate at Yale University.
“I think I was the first person in the history of Yale College to choose that major,” Perry said.
After completing a year of graduate work, Perry enlisted in the United States Army and was sent to Japan, where his interest in East Asia grew. When he returned from his military service, Perry attended Harvard University to pursue graduate studies in history, with a focus on Japan.
“At that point, China was closed to Americans, and so China remained a library study, whereas I could go to Japan and really immerse myself there in the culture and language and so forth,” Perry said.
In 1962, Perry graduated from Harvard with a Ph.D. in history and began his teaching career at Conn. College — an all-girls school at the time. He described his time there as a learning experience.
“[It was a] good place to start your career as a teacher, because you’re very uncertain and quite ignorant, but happily the young women at Connecticut were quite forgiving of a young male instructor,” he said.
From New London, Conn., Perry moved to Minnesota, where he became the director of East Asian Studies Program at Carleton College. Harvard later offered him a job as a research fellow, so he moved back to the East Coast with his wife and five children. After four years at Harvard, Perry took a position at Fletcher. Perry reflected on some of the most exciting and proud moments of his career at Tufts.
“We had the North Pacific Program for about a dozen years and what we did with that was to take students on summer seminar to places in the North Pacific world — principally Japan but also Korea,” he said. “We would take maybe 10 [students] from Fletcher, or 15, and have a like number of local people and people from other North Pacific countries,” he said.
The North Pacific Program, which ran from 1985 to 1995, was designed to help students examine the cultural, economic and political trends of the participating countries, according to Tisch Library records. While the program began by only reaching out to students from Japan and South Korea, Perry made it his mission to include students from parts of the world that were less accessible, like Russia, China and North Korea. Perry was able to convince the governments of these countries to send a few students each year to participate in the program so that they could study with students from the whole North Pacific region.
“The great thing about this program was that we brought people together who otherwise wouldn’t meet, and they developed friendships across cultures,” Perry said. “I think this is one of the first times that we’ve seen North Koreans and South Koreans study together for 10 days.”
Lee, a colleague of Perry’s, explained that he met Perry in 1991 in Korea and that he has felt quite close to him ever since.
“Over the years [Perry has] really had a profound impact on my life and also on the lives of many, many people throughout [the] 51 years of [his] teaching career,” Lee said.
In 1992, Lee came to Fletcher as a student in the Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy program. He took every class that Perry had to offer and developed a mentor-mentee relationship with Perry during the six years it took him to get his doctoral degree.
“Going back to those early days, when I finished my degree and I finished my dissertation, around the time of commencement, I came to see my advisor…and said ‘How can I ever repay you for all you’ve done for me, all you’ve taught me over the past six years?’ and Professor Perry in his typically understated and wise way said, ‘Well, I too have had my own teachers. I’ve learned a great deal from my own teachers and I have tried to be a good teacher in my effort to honor my own teachers,’” Lee said. “So basically he was telling me, you know, straighten yourself out and try to be a good teacher! … And although I can’t say I’ve lived up to that expectation or that high standard, I do think of his admonition, and I try to be a good teacher as well.”
To honor Perry, in 2000, Lee and other former students who studied under Perry established a fellowship in his name — the John Curtis Perry Fellowship or Scholarship.
“We called up people, former students, wrote letters, and within a few months, we had raised close to $200,000, which was unexpected and quite impressive, I must say,” Lee said. “So that fellowship is still in presence — it’s grown over the years but it is awarded each year to a student at the Fletcher School who shows promise of committing himself or herself to the study of East Asia, or becoming a policy maker related to East Asia in the public sector.”
Another one of Perry’s students, Albert Buixadé Farré, studied at Fletcher between 2011 and 2014. He described the refreshed feel of Perry’s courses each year.
“[Perry] really has a passion for education and every year he comes into a class, he comes with this speech…saying that ‘every new year is a very new challenge, and I’m not just going to repeat the same structure as last year.’ It’s always a fresh new start — like it was the first time he was teaching. And he not only said it, but he meant it.”
“He is electrifying,” Lee said, talking about Perry’s teaching style. “He is not a big man, he is not a young man, but he projects his voice…like an actor. He is a masterful orator, the best public speaker I have ever seen, and also as a teacher, he really encouraged all of his students, not only to absorb information and different insights and perspectives but really how to think. To question your premises, conventional wisdom, your own biases, what you assume to be true or valid, to really question everything.”
Buixadé Farré also talked about a unique speech that Perry gave each year.
“[There is] one very, very special lecture that he offers once a year to the entire school…called ‘Writing to be Read,’” Buixadé Farré said. “It’s so good that you could almost take any one phrase and it would be worth quoting … I cannot really go into explaining his teaching because, I mean, he’s amazing, and I cannot [do] justice to it.”
Now having made the transition from student to teacher himself, Lee draws on many of the things that Perry taught him as his professor.
“With maybe just the slightest exaggeration, I would say there’s probably not a single day when I’m on campus that I don’t think of my teacher, Professor Perry, even in passing, even if it’s just an image of him in the classroom from 20 years ago,” he said. “I hear his voice quite often, the way he would speak and counsel, advise students, giving each of his students, his visitors, undivided attention.”
Perry also spoke about the influence of teacher-student relationships on his career, noting his own relationship with his Russian history professor from Yale.
“I felt so enriched by my friendship with Fletcher students,” Perry said. “They are indeed an extraordinary group of young people, and some of my best friends now are former students, going back 35 years. For me, [being a mentor to students] is one of the greatest rewards of teaching. It’s the opportunity to listen to young people and to help them as they move into planning for their future life, and when I was a student, I really cultivated my teachers.”