Perry White?s life goal wasn?t to become a college president, but that vocation found him, and it goes along with his philosophy of life.
In September, the Bethel College president told freshmen who were dining in his and his wife, Dalene?s, home for dinner the secret to happiness in life is understanding and pursuing your purpose.
?In my opinion, you don?t always discover your purpose,? White said. ?More often than not, your purpose discovers you.?
Time spent in pursuing happiness is an empty endeavor, he added.
?Real purpose and happiness almost always include service to others and service to a cause greater than yourself,? he said.
White?s goal had included being of service to others ? his desire was to be a director of choral activities at a small church-based liberal arts college. He has master?s and doctorate degrees in choral conducting.
?College president was never one of the goals I set for myself,? White said.
His transition to becoming a college president happened through a series of events. When White worked at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Ill., he had reached his life goal ? he was director of choral activities there and then was promoted to director of that department. After teaching for six years, the president at Monmouth asked White to take the vice president of advancement position, and that same president also suggested to White he should consider becoming a college president, White said.
White spent 10 years at Monmouth as a teacher and administrator, then two years at Silver Lake College in Manitowoc, Wis., where he directed choir and was a vice president. He then accepted the president position at Bethel College.
For his undergraduate work, White attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, which is a small liberal arts college with 2,500 students. Of those, 900 sang in the choir; that college, at times, has had the largest number of students participate in choir than any college or university in America. Luther College has a gigantic music program, White said, and he majored in music education.
?It was an outstanding choir program,? said White, who was one of the choir members.
White has had an almost life-long interest in the theater. While he was at Luther, he limited himself to being involved in one play per year, picking the one with the shortest production time.
However, White didn?t always have his eyes set to the stage and music. Through his sophomore year in high school, he liked a different kind of stage ? that of the sports arena. He played football and baseball, and was involved in track. However, the bright lights of acting lured him.
?Once the theater bug bit me toward the end of sophomore year I was in every show all through high school,? White said.
White, who was born in the farming community of Edgewood, Iowa, graduated from high school in Cedar Rapids in eastern Iowa. That high school, which was one of three in the city, had 2,000 students. That big school had the quality of smaller schools, and those three schools prized their fine arts as much as the athletics programs, White said.
?I didn?t feel less supported when I moved into fine arts,? he said. ?I was really fortunate. I think that was really influential to me.?
The top choirs had about half of the members of the football team on them. Athletes also were involved in the choir when White had his first teaching job out of college. That choir had 75 singers, including the top five basketball players. In addition, part of the football team was in the marching band.
?Some of the (musicians) had football pads (at halftime),? White said.
Because White enjoyed music and theater, he had a choice to make in college. He could either major in music and teach or major in theater and act. He chose music and decided to pursue theater on the side.
White has performed in professional theater during teaching breaks, which led to opportunities in major motion pictures in the Kansas City area. He appears onscreen in ?Mr. and Mrs. Bridge? (1990) starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. He also was a stand-in for Kiefer Sutherland in the movie ?Article 99,? which also starred Ray Leota, Leah Thompson and Forest Whitaker. In his job as a stand-in, White attended rehearsals and watched Sutherland?s actions, which he?d have to replicate for the technical crew as they set up lighting and the like while Sutherland was in makeup and costuming. This was in 1991.
In summer 1993, White did 110 shows of ?The Sound of Music? at a dinner theater in Overland Park, but he said he likes teaching better. He taught high school in Iowa and the Kansas City area and at junior colleges in Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas.
?I?ve never been bored teaching,? he said. ?I was bored doing those things. Students are a bit more entertaining than the grind of acting.?
However, it was when he performed in the musical ?The Mystery of Edwin Drood? in Shawnee Mission that he met his wife, who also was part of the show. They did three shows together, which also included ?Big River? and ?Guys and Dolls.?
Through their 20 years of marriage, they?ve periodically done shows.
?It?s something we can do together,? White said.
Something else the Whites did together was work at Monmouth College. Dalene was a fundraiser there and shifted to working with the president as a special assistant and board liaison. White said that was a tremendous experience for both of them.
?I love the college environment,? White said.
White enjoys being a president more than being a vice president, because his vice president experience focused on the external, while as president, his college focus is external and internal, and the best part of his experience is to engage with the students.
For instance, White and Dalene have groups of freshmen over for dinner at their home at the beginning of each school year. During a recent dinner, White challenged the students to pick something they?re most afraid of and do it. One of the advantages of Bethel College is students can try new things, White said.
?You can do the things you came here to do, and you can also do new things,? White said, adding the college community, in a sense, is a safety net to allow students to experiment and explore new activities.
?Our students are involved in a wide variety of experiences (at Bethel College),? White said.
The college president enjoys his job and believes in Bethel. That enjoyment can be seen in how he kindly and supportively engages with faculty and staff, and stops to chat with students on the sidewalk.
?I still think this is an institution that has a tremendous history,? White said. ?A tremendous history of success, a tremendous history of service to higher education, a tremendous history of goals that serve the community and society. I?m very, very proud of this institution, and I?m not satisfied. I think that the potential of this institution is even greater than the history it owns.?
That?s one lesson White learned from one of his mentors, Weston Noble, a former choir director at Luther College. Noble, who spoke at White?s Bethel inauguration, taught White to be proud of his work and to not be satisfied with it either ? be proud but push to get better.
White, whose father died when he was 7 and was raised by a single mother as an only child, learned more from Noble.
?I learned about the desire to build something,? White said. ?It wouldn?t have mattered what profession I went into. He inspired me to build something.?
At first, White thought Noble inspired him to build a choral program, but then he realized it was to be building or building on something.
Another highly influential person in White?s life is his mother, who remarried and resides in Iowa.
?I have great respect for my mother,? White said. ?She?s probably one of the most accepting people I?ve known? and noted her great resilience and strength in a quiet way.
White?s wife is another important person in his life. He said he?s fortunate to have her as a life partner, and he?s never found marriage with her to be a lot of work.
?We complement each other on our life together,? White said. ?We have similar interests but different strengths. I think we complement each other in life, and I rely on her strengths when I?m weak.?
Both are quite dedicated to Bethel College. White said he believes the college has developed some stability since they?re arrived ? some anxiety there has lessened.
He added the Bethel community is able to look at the external forces that require change since he?s arrived on campus. In addition, although he doesn?t know if this has anything to do with him, he said the college has been experiencing stability and awareness they?re in a good position to influence higher education as an institution.
?We?re probably in a better position to change and make an even greater impact in this industry that is higher education,? he said.
To that end, it seems everyone needs a purpose.
?I think the realization I?ve come to ? it?s not just a personal and human endeavor,? White said about purpose. ?I think it?s an institutional one too.?
The individual and institutional purpose can have something in common.
?There?s a similar self-actualization that takes place,? White said.
As with any institution, Bethel is looking to the future, and that future includes a purpose. What?s next is a clarification of their mission and values that lead them to a ?robust, inclusive and potentially transformative strategic plan,? White said.
by Wendy Nugent