School's out for one teacher

Tom Purdy did not anticipate a long career in education when he agreed to an interview for a Thurston Middle School teaching position while waiting to play volleyball on Main Beach 41 years ago.

Purdy, who was 22 at the time, had just finished college. His uncle, a lifeguard, approached him on the beach and told him that Thurston's then-Principal David Lloyd was looking to fill a teaching position.

Purdy immediately called Lloyd from a nearby phone booth and soon was sitting, sand-caked skin and all, in Lloyd's office.

Lloyd hired Purdy as a part-time physical education teacher. He spent 17 years as a teacher, coach and athletic director at Laguna Beach High School, and the past 24 years at Thurston, where he primarily taught U.S. and world history.

That's all coming to an end as the 62-year-old prepares to retire at the fast-approaching close of the school year.

"It was time," Purdy said in his classroom last week, adding that his wife, Claudia, "and I decided that I would be here for at least [his son's] sixth-grade year."

Purdy's 12-year-old-son, William, has been in his class this year. Spending more time with William was a factor in the decision to retire, he said.

Purdy knows Laguna schools well — he attended El Morro Elementary School and Thurston and graduated from Laguna Beach High School in 1968.

In addition to teaching, he led the high school's athletic department for three years and organized Thurston's geography club for the past six years.

But it's the classroom where Purdy draws his motivation. He hopes students appreciate the story behind the events and people they read about.

"I love the preparation and research," Purdy said. "I'm constantly reading to find the next new story to tell. Last night I was reading more about [Civil War Gen.] George McClellan, trying to find something to share with students.

"If nothing else, I don't care if you remember the battles, but appreciate what people before you have gone through."

Purdy referred to Abraham Lincoln losing a son while trying to run a country during the Civil War and Ulysses S. Grant's rise to U.S. president from humble beginnings as examples of going beyond numbers and names.

"[Grant] pawned his watch to get enough money to buy presents for his kids before the [Civil War] broke out," Purdy said. "Within a few months, he demanded surrender at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. In a couple years, he dictated terms for Robert E. Lee's surrender, and then he was president.

"If you can't get a little excited or inspired by that, you have to look for a pulse."

Purdy has left an indelible mark at Thurston.

"Tom has been an integral part of Thurston," said Principal Jenny Salberg, who has known Purdy for 10 years. "He has vast amounts of wisdom and is able to bring lessons to life."

Salberg commended Purdy's storytelling ability, which she said is a key characteristic for an effective history teacher.

Purdy hasn't thought a lot about how he will spend his free time.

"I don't have a lot of hobbies, but I love to read and like to travel," he said.

And he will have more time with William.

"I'll be the soccer mom driving back and forth to school," Purdy said. "I'm looking forward to that. How many dads get to spend quality time with their kid?"

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