2011 Distinguished Alumni Honorees

Patrick Hughes
Owner, Hughes Group, LLC

Watch Patrick Hughes's interview

If you ask Patrick Hughes how he managed to transform his one-man janitorial supply business into a multimillion-dollar company with 150 employees spread over a dozen states, you'd better be prepared for an interesting answer.

"I failed at selling Amway twice," he said with a bouncing chuckle. "I like to say that. It's funny, but it's actually true!"

Hughes started his career in the Army, where he worked as a logistics officer, ensuring soldiers had everything they needed. In 1986, he was stationed at Fort Lewis and took classes at Pierce College (then Fort Steilacoom Community College) to advance in the ranks and earn an associate's degree.

Over the next decade, he was back and forth to Fort Lewis between other deployments around the world, and, in 2000, he opened a part-time janitorial supply store in Lacey.

"I went to the Army during the day and to the store at night and on the weekends," he said. By 2003, when he retired from the Army, the company was thriving. He won his first government contract shortly after and set about establishing the reputation that would help him continue to grow and expand.

Last year, the national Small Business Administration named Hughes the Minority Business Owner of the Year by, an honor he likens to the Heisman Trophy in college football. He is the first person to win the award from Washington State.

But, Hughes isn't sitting back relishing his success.

"It's all about the journey you're on and there's still so far for me to go," he said. "I'm here to help others go further…It's what you do in the community that speaks volumes to being successful."

John Lee
Director, Washington Department of Veterans Affairs

Watch John Lee's interview

Before John Lee was drafted into the Army in 1968, he was doing poorly in college and had been "flopping around" for several years, unsure of the future and his place in it. Before long, he was a Vietnam veteran, feeling just as lost, only now with a wife and two young sons to support.

"I was at Fort Bragg then, 28 (years old), with two boys, and I realized I had some broader responsibilities," he said. "I began slowly chipping away at college. It took me 15 years to finish my undergraduate degree."

Now, as the director for the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, Lee uses his experiences to help other veterans facing the same hardships and difficulties. He understands the obstacles faced by current veterans returning from war, facing the effects of trauma, and needing to support their families in difficult economic circumstances.

He remembers his time at Fort Lewis, balancing work, family, and Pierce College classes, as one of the most difficult of his life. At times, he felt overwhelmed and, on a few occasions, he thought about giving up.

"Pierce taught me I could do this," he said, noting that the culture was pro-military and faculty were flexible around his military schedule.

Today, his message to veterans is simple: Do it now. Don't wait.

"I remember a lot of times saying, 'I'll (finish my education) next year,' but next year becomes two years," he said. "As you mature and grow up, your life doesn't get less encumbered. It gets more so…Now is the time to start, even if it's just one course. Pretty soon, you'll see light at the end."

Debbi Needham
Author and Musician

Watch Debbi Needham's interview

With her boundless energy, it's natural to wonder if Debbi Needham is part-hummingbird. At any moment, she's buzzing about any of a dozen projects, whether it's art, writing, music, raising exotic birds, or teaching gifted students at Parkside Elementary School in Des Moines. It's also easy to see how, in spite of her success as an adult, she struggled in high school and the rigid atmosphere of traditional education.

"I was really bored. The big world was more exciting to me," she said. "I got my GED at (age) 16 and I went out to live."

After a few years working with bands in Tacoma, Needham realized she needed a college education to be successful. At age 19, she started at Pierce College and took a journalism class that would change her life.

Her instructor, Michael Parks, saw she was a gifted writer and encouraged her to join the campus newspaper staff. Before long, she was the paper's editor and winning awards from press associations for her work.

After college, she worked as a journalist before the demands of having a special needs child began to affect her ability to meet deadlines. She decided to go in a different direction.

Today, she teaches the top two percent of South Seattle students in a free-flowing, intellectually challenging environment that is well-suited to her spontaneous, creative personality. She has also written two young adult novels, plays in punk band, Klondike Kate, and is politically active on behalf of teachers' and workers' rights.

"I can't see myself living without doing," she explained. "That's what makes life colorful."

John Simpson
Pierce College Professor & Journalist

Watch John Simpson's interview

John Simpson is not a man who understands the word "can't." Once he decides to do something, he's in all the way, whether it's embedding as a photojournalist with wartime soldiers or teaching history to Pierce College students.

"I'm aware of my limitations and I take it right to the limit," he said candidly. "You're in a black and white situation. You're either there or you're not. There's no second-guessing. You play the game or you get off the field."

It's a simple philosophy, but one that has guided Simpson's life. After 21 years in the Air Force, Simpson was in the reserves when he took a part-time job at Pierce College correcting reading tests. He took some fill-in classes at Pierce before earning his master's degree and began working in Pierce's Alternative Learning Center before teaching two history classes. He was soon hired to teach full-time.

During this time, Simpson became interested in photojournalism.

"I would look at photos and think, 'I could do a better job,'" he said. "I spent a year reading everything I could about photojournalism. I think I checked out every magazine they had at the library."

Since his first photo job (a $10 gig at Fort Lewis), he's been embedded with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan seven times. His work was nominated for an Emmy Award when it was featured on KCPQ news. Whatever the challenge, he's jumped in with both feet. It's a lesson he shares with his students.

"If you think you want to do something, do it," he said. "There are so many opportunities out there. Take one. Take two. You'll never learn if you don't take the opportunities that are there."