Rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Bo Diddley’s hit song, You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover, could have been written about District 10 City Councilman Clayton Perry.
You can’t judge an apple by looking at a tree, You can’t judge honey by looking at the bee, You can’t judge a daughter by looking at the mother,
You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover.
That’s Perry. At first glance, he looks very much like a conventional 60-something retired military business dude. With his close-cropped hair and perfectly pressed shirts and pants, it’s tempting to stereotype him that way. But his warm smile and twinkling eyes tell a different story.
Born Oct. 10, 1955, Perry grew up in Giddings, Texas, a tiny rural community some two hours northeast of San Antonio. His dad was the town plumber. And Perry grew up working in his dad’s business, earning his plumber’s license about the same time he got his driver’s license.
School work came easy to him then. “I got A’s and B’s throughout high school, without putting in much effort,” he recalls. Perry also enjoyed music. “I took up the trombone in the fifth grade and stayed with it through college,” he says. His trombone was passed down to him by an uncle who had played it in the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band. Later, Perry followed in his uncle’s footsteps to Texas A&M University and the band.
His first semester at A&M proved difficult. “I wanted to be a dentist. That first semester was loaded with science classes. I did not do well,” he says. He was placed on academic probation. “I figured if college didn’t work out, I could always go back to Giddings and into my dad’s plumbing business.
“But I ran into a friend on campus, told him about my academic difficulties. He suggested I consider majoring in something called ‘building construction.’ According to him, you did not need to take any of the science classes required for pre-dentistry. That sounded good to me. I made the switch, and by the end of the second semester my grades had improved. I was off academic probation. Life was good.”
Perry worked his way through A&M as a plumber – licensed plumbers are always in demand. He also waited tables at Duncan Dining Hall, where the Corps of Cadets eat their meals.
“At the end of my sophomore year I had to make a choice to either stay in the Corps just to participate in drills and ceremonies or to go on an ROTC scholarship. That would pay for tuition and books, plus a $100-a-month stipend, which was big bucks back then. I chose the scholarship route to take some of the burden off my folks, who were helping me pay for school,” he explains.
Perry ruled out serving in the Navy or Marines. “I flipped a quarter to choose between the Air Force and the Army. If the coin landed eagle up, it was Air Force. George Washington face up, would be the Army. The Air Force won,” he says.
Following graduation in 1979, he was commissioned in the United Sates Air Force as a second lieutenant. His military salary was a big shock: “I made more working as a part-time plumber in College Station than I did as a second lieutenant.” But money – or lack thereof – did not drive him from the military. He served for 21 years as an Air Force civil engineer, stationed at home and abroad, including 10 years in Europe. He retired in 2000 as a lieutenant colonel.
It’s family – his three kids – who are the center of his universe. In 1991, after he and his first wife divorced, he returned to the states and moved to San Antonio with his children. “I was a single parent. My ex-wife wanted to stay in Germany, where I was last stationed. But I thought it was time to return to Texas to raise our children – Beau, Amanda, and Devon.” And so he did.
Perry bought a house across the street from Redland Oaks Elementary School, just down the street from Driscoll Middle School. The kids could walk to school, which was a plus. The three went on to graduate from MacArthur High School and then Texas A&M. “I was house poor back then, but I wanted something for the kids. Raising them and paying that mortgage on a major’s salary was a stretch. But we made do. Things got better when I made lieutenant colonel,” he recalls.
He adds, “My folks were hunters, and they would give us a deer every year. That really helped. My kids grew up on venison steaks and burgers. We did not have the luxury of eating out very often. But on Sundays, after church, we’d go to Panchito’s. It was an all-you-can-eat Mexican restaurant. That was our treat.
“There were times I didn’t think I could do it as a single dad. All three kids were active in sports, after-school programs and weekends too with soccer, baseball, volleyball and more. I was responsible for getting them to practices. During the week, I worked at Brooks Air Force Base. Late afternoons I hustled back home to get them to where they needed to be. It was tiring and stressful.
“When I hear stories about single parents, I can really empathize with them. Been there. Done that, as they say. And it is not easy,” he empathizes.
After he retired from the military in 2000, Perry worked in the private sector in civil engineering. He began to think about what he really wanted to do. He realized it was the helping people part that he loved the most about his work.
Perry had never thought about politics or running for public office. But when District 10 City Councilman Michael Gallagher decided not to seek re-election in 2017, Perry tossed his hat into the ring and won. “I enjoy giving back to the community. Serving on council lets me do that,” he says.
As to his future, Perry smiles and says more time hugging his kids and five grandkids is very appealing. But he’ll have to work that into the 12 or more hours a day he currently spends as a councilman. Turns out it’s a job he really likes.
By Ron Aaron Eisenberg