Thomas F. Thurston ‘65

Alumnus creates space for personal growth and identity development of Perkiomen’s students.

Meet Tom. Tom is a lot of things: a Baby Boomer, a former telecommunications officer, father of two, grandfather of five, openly gay, and once a precocious kid who tested out of the first grade. In the summer of 1952, he was a five-year-old analyzing the switchboard at a general store in Andover, Maine, while visiting family. What was it? What did it do? When his dad, Lester, responded, there was no way he could have known that his answers would spark inspiration in his son – the kind of inspiration that would follow him his entire life. Lester explained, “When people here turn the crank on their phones, the switchboard makes a noise, and a little door drops open.  That tells the operator that someone in town wants to make a call and they have to answer to find out who they want.” Even as a young boy, Tom’s brain was curious and reflective. Something about this operation appealed to him. The adults in his life, likely amused by his questions, obliged. But a simple act of supporting a child’s sense of self would eventually evolve into an enlightened professional path that would last 27 years.  

When he graduated from high school, having skipped first grade, Tom was only 17, which meant there was time and space for a six-week summer course plus a postgraduate year at Perkiomen School. Though smart, academics never interested him. Instead, Tom was a natural at problem solving when it came to practical issues. During his year at Perkiomen, he diagnosed a problem with the number of phone circuits out of Pennsburg, which only allowed four of the seven pay phones in the dorms to be simultaneously used for long distance calls. This was a problem every night during the hour after study hall and before “light’s out” at bedtime. It didn’t take long for Tom to figure out the issue. He wrote a letter to the manager of the Bell Telephone Company in Pottstown. A few weeks later, Tom was called into the office of Dr. Stephen W. Roberts, Head of School.  The Bell manager stood there with Tom’s letter in hand, the Perkiomen seal at the top.  He thanked Tom for writing and promised to fix the issue after a few months of re-engineering, which he did. At graduation, Tom was presented with the Headmaster’s Award for Citizenship and School Loyalty.

“It was something I knew would benefit everyone living on campus,” reflects Tom.

Looking back, Tom recognizes himself as an extrovert who acted, in his words, like a bit of a loner. Like many young adults, he was still figuring out the intricacies of life. Plus, many of his Perkiomen peers had already formed bonds from being classmates for years, but Tom didn’t mind! He created opportunities for himself to help others. He volunteered his time in Roberts Hall to flip burgers and dispense Cokes. He became friendly with Elaine Holley, the school nurse, who he visited in East Greenville when at school for his 50th class reunion in 2015. a year before she died. Mr. Haas, the bookstore manager, allowed Tom to sort the afternoon mail each day, which then gave him the fun task of letting his peers know who could expect to find a letter after finishing dinner.

“I was happiest when I was helping others,” Tom remembers. “I think that’s what attracted me to those small-town switchboards. Every call was a chance to connect people with each other.”

From his childhood home near Harrisburg, to a postgraduate year in Pennsburg, Tom went on to Staten Island and Wagner College before landing at the Bryant Pond Telephone Co., also in Maine, where he began his 27-year career in telecommunications. He installed their crank phones by day, then ran the switchboard at night, which was situated in the living room of the family who owned that company. From there, he went on to the Contel Corp., which later, along with GTE, Bell Atlantic and NYNEX, became Verizon. His last 11 years of work in telecommunications was spent at USTeleCenters in Boston, where as director of business development he was instrumental in creating what became the largest authorized sales agent for the Baby Bells after their divestiture from AT&T.  

As each of us reflects on our life, we inevitably see single threads weaving their way through and around our experiences, connecting common themes, tying together people, places, and memories. Looking back at those switchboards in Maine, the one Tom first looked on curiously as a five-year-old, it is a simple yet profound thought that this switchboard connected him to his great-grandmother while he was a student at Perkiomen. Similar lines connected his wife, Helga, to her family in Germany for 30 minutes a month. (It cost $1.20 a minute – a large sum today, let alone in the 1970s!). It was also phone lines in Maine that his parents used to call Helga to discuss the news Tom shared when he was 35. The lines his wife used to tell his mother: “Nancy, Tom is gay. You’ll just have to get used to it.”

Being described by his wife as something Tom was never willing to openly admit to himself was a moment of personal enlightenment. It released an immediate, inherent acknowledgement and understanding of self within Tom’s mind and heart. For the first time, he was receiving encouragement, positive reinforcement, and most of all: acceptance about who he was on the inside.

Helga, pragmatic and self-confident with her unconditional love for him, gave Tom the gift of a true partnership. During their 10-year marriage, they had two kids: Barbara and Kevin. Remaining close after their divorce, Tom reflects on the joy of his and Helga’s five grandchildren: three girls in Massachusetts, and two boys in Minnesota.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the opportunities for exploring all forms of self-expression and identity development were limited. Tom’s prevailing thought was to carry on his family name by getting married and ultimately ignoring the piece of his heart that fluttered when the teenage boy who lived across the street from his childhood home pulled into the driveway in his yellow 1951 convertible.

Today, Tom no longer spends time as an extrovert living an introverted life. Thanks to Helga and the support of his children, he is unapologetically himself as an out, gay man, embracing the world and living his truth.   

Thanks to Tom’s contribution to Perkiomen, there will be a meeting room in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion where groups of students can gather, think, reflect, and discover. With students from all over the world, Perkiomen has an array of identities and expressions, cultural backgrounds, and heritages to explore, something that was not openly discussed or celebrated when Tom was a student. Though we are no longer using crank phones connected to a switchboard, now more than ever we are still connecting with one another.

While we don’t know what subjects might be discussed in Tom’s meeting room, he does know that – in the same way that their academic and professional pursuits will be encouraged – it will be an opportunity for identities to be nourished. Teachers and mentors of current and future generations of Perkiomen students will continue to help young people connect the dots of their sense of self, having lasting impacts on their lives and their futures.