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Ratty, SciLi and Sigma Chi: Tom Perez on his time at Brown

Current DNC chair recounts rowdy times spent on College Hill 34 years ago as student

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2017

As a student, DNC Chairman Tom Perez ’83 worked 20 hours a week at the Ratty and spent a summer refinishing floors with Facilities Services.

At 11 a.m. in the Watson Institute for International Affairs and Public Relations, Tom Perez ’83 P ’18 sits calmly at his desk wearing thick black frames and a shadow of a goatee that complement his academic surroundings. However, his office is just across the street from a place with slightly less polished memories of the current DNC chair — Wriston Quad.

“Oh, no. I never went to a party,” Perez said, smiling. “I was studying every Friday and Saturday night.”

His daughter, Amalia Perez ’18, laughs from the corner. She eats her Blue State sandwich in a chair beside her dad. He’s about to head into the seminar that he teaches as a recently-appointed senior fellow at the Watson Institute.

“He was in Sigma Chi, which he has not mentioned,” Amalia declared.

“Yeah, I was in a fraternity,” Perez responded. “We had a lot of fun. That was back when we were able to have alcohol on campus. The drinking age was a little different. Thursday nights were the open bar night at Sigma Chi. Those were always pretty crowded. I have very fond memories.”

But Sigma Chi was far from the only activity Perez engaged with on campus. As a Pell Grant recipient, he worked twenty hours a week at The Ratty. He spent the summer after his junior year on Ives street refinishing floors with Facilities Services. And during his senior year, he took a job downtown at the Commission for Human Rights. Meaningful work was a defining feature of his time in Providence, he said.

“I played a lot of intramural sports, too — basketball, softball,” he said. “My best friend from college senior year, a guy slid into him at third base. He was feeling kind of under-the-weather after that. Long story short, I drove him to the emergency room and three hours later he had his spleen removed. We had great memories from intramural sports, many memories. Some were a bit scary.”

When he wasn’t at the emergency room, bar night or in The Ratty, Perez could be found studying in a still-favorite campus spot.

“I studied mostly at (the Sciences Library) because I was a liberal arts major and I saw less people I knew at the Sci Li, so there were less distractions,” Perez said. “The Rock frankly put me to sleep. I would end up drooling over my notebook because I’d fall asleep and wake up. So that was not conducive to studying.”

The inspiration behind Perez’s nights in the Sci Li was driven in part by his professor and advisor, former associate dean of medicine Ed Besier, a “legend for two generations of Brown students,” Perez said.

“I was a Catholic kid from a Jesuit high school coming into a remarkably diverse campus, and my mentor and closest advisor was an Orthodox Jew. That was what I loved about Brown. It opened my eyes and broadened my horizons,” he reflected.

Perez has a dramatically different life than he did 34 years ago when he walked through the Van Wickle gates. As the former United States Secretary of Labor and current DNC chair, an 80-hour week is the standard, he said. This week alone, he has traveled to New York, Philadelphia, Connecticut, New Jersey and Rhode Island, and he heads to Wisconsin tomorrow, he said.

To stay sane, Perez surrounds himself with family. This year marks his 13th consecutive year as a basketball coach for at least one of his kids’ teams.

“You’re still doing that?” Amalia chimed in. She played on her dad’s team for five years. “That’s so ridiculous.”

His son, a high school sophomore in Washington, D.C., is gearing up to start his season. Perez will be there to coach Tuesday night practices and Saturday morning games.

“I had a couple of games of his where I took a red-eye home from L.A. and coached his team,” Perez said. “It’s fun. These are the things that parenting is about.”

A staple of Perez’s whirlwind of a schedule is Thursdays at the University. As a senior fellow at Watson, Perez leads a seminar entitled “Governance and Leadership in Challenging Times,” which meets seven sessions during the fall semester, as previously reported by The Herald.

“Life kind of changed in November of 2016, and so this was the opportunity to give back,” Perez said.

Today, Perez starts his seminar by greeting an wave of students disproportionately dressed in fall-colored flannels, sharp frames and all sporting red Watson lanyards around their necks. Perez stands like an intellectual giant before them, illuminated by the light shining through the white shades behind him. Perez, joined by Director of the Department of Labor and Training Scott Jensen, emphasized the importance of “soft skills” in actualizing progress.

“If you can get the right people on the bus, the bus goes a long way,” Perez started, pointing to “The Bus” bullet point scribbled on the whiteboard beside him.

Bottle of Coca-Cola in hand, Perez paced around the room with animated gestures. As the class continued, Perez and Jensen bantered, earning bouts of laughter from the class. Half-an-hour into the discussion, Governor Gina Raimondo joined the group. Together, the three Democratic minds led students in a discussion touching on Rhode Island education, unemployment and shaping future policies for the state.

“The students of today are far more sophisticated than I was,” Perez said, reflecting on his seminar. “I hope they get involved in the community here. Brown can be a bubble.”