2012 Distinguished Alumni Honorees

Watch the 2012 Distinguished Alumni Celebration

Leroy Petry
US Army Ranger, Medal of Honor Recipient

Watch Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry's interview

Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry doesn't see himself as a hero, even as he travels the country with his Congressional Medal of Honor and dines at the White House as an honored guest. To him, he's a husband and father, an Army Ranger, an ordinary guy who did what he could to save his brothers.

In a firefight in Afghanistan in 2008, Petry, who had already been shot through both legs, picked up a live grenade to save the lives of two men in his unit. The grenade exploded in his hand. Petry's memories of the incident are graphic and horrifying, and, while he admits to saving at least two lives that day, he insists it was nothing extraordinary for an Army Ranger.

"It's not courage. It's that L-word we don't like to use in the military. It was love," he said. "I looked at the two men next to me that day and they were no different than my own children or my wife. I did what anyone would have done."

Petry is only the second living recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for actions since the Vietnam War.

Since his return from Afghanistan, Petry has continued to serve soldiers. At Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), he works as a liaison between wounded soldiers and their families, arranging for transportation and housing, and ensuring each soldier receives the benefits to which they're entitled. After his own experience as an injured soldier, Petry knows how critical a liaison can be during those initial days following a traumatic injury. He's a living example of the quality care soldiers receive.

"To see the resiliency of these wounded soldiers is the best part of the job," he said. "It's very motivating to see others getting better every day. It helps me instill in my children that they need to do the best they can do."

His children are his primary motivation, especially as it relates to his education. Petry enlisted in the Army at age 20 and, while he says he always had college as a goal, he found it difficult to juggle deployments, training, and family life. But, in 2003, he began taking classes through Pierce College's military program at JBLM. The classes worked around his military schedule and teachers were sympathetic to the challenges of military life during wartime.

His classroom success is shared with his wife and children.

"When I made the Dean's List, I posted it up on the fridge with the kids' report cards," he recalled. "They were so proud of me and it was something important for me to share with them."

Since receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service, Petry has been touring the country speaking to community and veterans groups, military academies, and active duty soldiers about leadership and resilience. It's a strange position for an "ordinary" guy from Sante Fe, New Mexico. While he says he may never get used to all the attention, he feels it's his duty to share his story with others.

"So many people want to meet me," he said. "It's awkward. I don't feel any different from anyone else. The medal belongs to all of those in the military. It doesn't belong only to me. This is my way of sharing the medal with them."

Petry plans to finish his education once his traveling schedule lightens up and he has more time to exert towards his studies. He sees online classes as his best option. While he ultimately plans on starting his own business after he retires from the military, he can see himself taking college classes indefinitely.

"Something everyone should do is continue their education," he said. "I just love going to school. I could take classes the rest of my life."

Gary Johnson
Pierce County Superior Court Judge

Watch Judge Gary Johnson's interview

As Pierce County Superior Court Judge Gary Johnson takes his seat behind the bench every day to hear the intimate and often heartbreaking details of people's lives, he understands that he could easily be sitting on the other side. Like many of those he sees in his courtroom, Johnson was once a young man with few goals and little confidence in himself or his abilities. His grades were poor and he saw few options for his future.

"I wasn't looking for an academic education," he recalled. "I was a darn good mechanic. My dad had oil trucks and I wanted to become an airline mechanic and pilot."

Those plans were sidelined when Johnson began losing his vision and the job market became flooded with experienced pilots and mechanics returning from Vietnam. Johnson needed another plan. In 1970, he enrolled at Pierce College Fort Steilacoom (then Fort Steilacoom Community College), but he wasn't an immediate success.

"My first two classes were both incompletes," he said, adding, "It gave me the opportunity to experience not succeeding and, after that, I actually did quite well. (I learned that) college isn't designed for geniuses. It's designed for people with average intelligence and for people with tenacity."

After his time at Pierce, Johnson transferred to the University of Puget Sound, where he earned his bachelor's degree in history. He took a job as a juvenile corrections officer with a desire to "fix the world's ills." Seeking to make an even greater impact in his community, Johnson began law school at UPS. He graduated with honors and began working as an attorney.

Over his career, Johnson handled every kind of case imaginable, from property disputes to divorces to criminal defense and prosecution. His work was varied and challenging, and he was deeply committed to the law. Consequently, when he was approached about serving as a judge, it was a decision he took seriously.

"I was very reluctant at first because my practice had been going well for 30 years and I was very dedicated to my clients," he said. Even applying for a position meant a long and invasive vetting process with no guarantees. In the end, Johnson decided to go for it.

On April 18, 2011, Judge Gary Johnson was sworn in as a Pierce County Superior Court Judge, an emotionally taxing, intellectually demanding, time consuming position he desperately loves.

"It can be very difficult. It's your job and you do your job, but the march of human tragedy can be overwhelming," he said candidly. "More than once I've had to take a break. The callous indifference to others can be very difficult to deal with, but it's about trying to find ways to make things better. My job is to uphold the law and I do that as best I can."

Johnson's compassion comes from knowing how easily his own life could have ended up differently, and how critical the role of community college was for building a solid foundation for his life.

"I could easily have ended up somewhere else," he said. "Community college is an absolutely necessary rung in my life. I couldn't have done it otherwise."

Shota Nakama
Musician, Producer, Arranger, Translator

Watch Shota Nakama's interview

Bridging the expansive cultural gap between traditional classical music and high-tech video game scores is Shota Nakama, an innovative musician who is transforming the idea of a live orchestra.

Nakama is the founder, producer, and musical director of Video Game Orchestra, a diverse group of classically trained musicians who perform contemporary arrangements of video game music. The group has been performing since 2008, introducing a whole new generation of video game fans to the excitement of live orchestral performance.

Although his group has achieved success today, Nakama’s idea was met initially with resistance from the classical music community.

"Initially, I made an orchestral arrangement 'Final Fantasy Theme' and took it to two school orchestras in Boston to possibly perform it," he recalled in an interview with Square Enix Music Online, a website dedicated to video game music. "Guess what? They all refused to play it! So, for my pure love and passion for video game music, I decided to do it on my own."

Nakama has always gone out on his own. He grew up in Okinawa, Japan, and began taking piano lessons at a young age. Bored by the tedium of practicing and distracted by his love for video games, he quit in junior high and didn't touch music again for several years. When his uncle gave him an electric guitar, he was hooked. He wanted to be a rock star and, failing to see the value in spending several years in high school, he dropped out and came to the U.S. to study music. He earned his GED and began taking classes at Pierce College as an international education student, earning an associate degree in 2003. He transferred to Pacific Lutheran University, but continued to take classes and perform in the jazz band at Pierce College until 2005.

Nakama then transferred to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he earned a bachelor's degree in film scoring. In 2011, he received his master's degree in classical guitar performance from the Boston Conservatory.

In addition to his work with Video Game Orchestra, he has composed scores for video games and films, and has worked on recording and arranging projects in Germany, Taiwan, and Japan.

Nakama has said his orchestra celebrates independence, freedom, and diversity, and builds upon the strengths of the musicians.

"We are very different from typical orchestras both musically and stylistically," he described. "We play video game music in so many different styles, such as rock, metal, symphonic, and swing, and we have quite a lot of improvised solos to bring up individual talents. I guess the musicians like that kind of freedom and diversity since they cannot usually get that from anywhere else."

The orchestra's success has helped Nakama achieve his childhood dream of playing for large audiences and having the creative freedom to make the music he wants.

"I always wanted to be a rock star when I studied guitar," he said in an online interview. "Of course, everyone does, so it feels really good to be where I am now."