By his own admission, Tommy Thayer was a self-proclaimed "band geek" when he played saxophone while attending Beaverton's Meadow Park Middle School, and later, at Sunset High School, where he graduated in 1978.
It was at Sunset that he honed his musical chops — playing in the symphonic, jazz and marching band there — which eventually lead him to a permanent position playing lead guitar and donning the persona of "The Spaceman" for Kiss, arguably the most influential and visual rock band to come out of the 1970s.
Thayer said his inspiration at Sunset was the school's band director, Dell Herreid, who he called both a great teacher and mentor.
This month, Thayer delivered the keynote speech — and received an honorary doctorate of humane letters for his philanthropic leadership — at Pacific University in Forest Grove.
"I didn't even go to college," Thayer said during a recent interview from his home near Thousand Oaks, Calif. "I went right from high school basically into playing music and pursuing that."
Thayer actually lived in Lake Grove when he was 19 years old.
"It was the first place I had when I moved out of my parent's house," he said, noting that he and two of his buddies rented a beautiful home there in the late '70s. "I don't think you can get a nice house in Lake Grove for $450 a month anymore."
On Saturday, he joined his father, Brig. Gen. James B. Thayer Sr. of Lake Oswego, to become only the second members of the same family to receive honorary degrees at Pacific University. The elder Thayer received his honorary doctorate in 2009.
Tommy Thayer has been on the Pacific University Board of Trustees since 2005, creating the highly successful Legends celebrity fundraiser that ran for a decade to raise money for the NCAA Division III intercollegiate athletics program.
"So this year they're honoring me with a degree and I'm real proud that they appreciate me that much," Thayer said. "Of course I'm just honored to be a part of something like this and have people think so highly of what I've brought to the university and what I've done."
Thayer said his guitar-playing days likely began at age 13, and he joined or created a series of garage bands along the way.
"I didn't have any aspirations thinking I was going to, you know, be a rock star ... or thinking that was going to be my career," said Thayer, who is articulate and soft-spoken. "I just loved doing it."
Inspired by the influences of the 1970s — Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple — Thayer would eventually co-found a hard rock band called Black 'n Blue, comprised of five guys from the Portland area who got together in 1981. Two years later, the band would move to Southern California in an effort to "try to make something happen."
Black 'n Blue eventually opened for Kiss. Later, Thayer would work as a producer, songwriter and business manager for Kiss before being named the band's lead guitarist and Ace Frehley's permanent replacement in 2003.
Besides his work at Pacific University, Thayer has had his hand in numerous side projects as well.
Questions and answers
But before we talk about those, let's take care of those FAQs you have:
What is the blood-spitting, fire-breathing Gene Simmons like?
"Gene's a hard-working, very ambitious person. When you really get to know him he's a sweetheart. You know (he) kind of comes off with a tough exterior sometimes. He can be a little abrasive in some ways but he's a guy I've known a long time and he's actually been a great mentor to me."
And Paul Stanley, Kiss' rhythm guitarist?
"Paul Stanley is a great guy.... I've known Paul almost as long as I've known Gene. They've given me great opportunities in my life and taught me a lot and they're both top-notch people and very good at what they do. I've just been proud and honored to be on the ride with them and they have given me great opportunities."
And Ace Frehley, who Thayer replaced in the band? (Thayer is more charitable than Frehley, who over the years has lobbed a few insensitive comments Thayer's way.)
"I haven't talked to him in a long time.... All the best to him. I hope everyone does well."
Finally, how long does it take to put on "The Spaceman" makeup?
"We give ourselves a couple hours to get ready, (to) put our makeup on, and it's a ritual with Kiss," he said, noting the band has always done its own makeup.
While Kiss has slowed down its touring schedule over the years, they are far from finished.
"Kiss is a touring machine," he said. "This year we're not touring as much. It's a slower year because I think it's going to get crazier, a little heavier touring next year."
Meanwhile Thayer's work outside of Kiss provides a busy schedule for him as well.
About six years ago, Thayer began raising funds to build the Oregon Military Museum at Camp Withycombe in the Clackamas area, which will be named in honor of his father. Thayer has helped extensively with fundraising efforts, raising $6 million-$8 million for what will be a 32,000-square-foot museum, he said.
"We still have a ways to go and hopefully the museum will open in the next year or two," Thayer said. "The building's main construction is pretty much done. Now we're at an exhibits stage where we're raising money and designing and developing exhibits, and it's a bigger project."
At the same time, Thayer is heavily involved in his "Ernest Hummingbird" project, a tale about a hummingbird who doesn't like to hum. He sings instead. A hardcover book was created by prolific writer and animator David Feiss.
"(Feiss) wrote this book initially but we decided to animate it and add character voices and I wrote eight or nine songs and Darius Rucker, a friend of mine ... who's a big country music star, he narrated it," he said, noting it's downloadable at Apple's App Store. "Ultimately we'd like to, you know, get a network deal, maybe make a show out of it. A cartoon show."
In 2008, Thayer started his own signature edition of guitar amps with all royalties benefiting Children's Hospital Los Angeles.
So what did he say to the 350 graduates who received their diplomas at Pacific University's Hanson Field? He talked about his story, what drove him and what inspired him to play music.
"The long/short of it is if you're dedicated, you work hard and you show up on time and you persevere, you'll be surprised at what can happen in life sometimes," said Thayer. "I have, obviously."
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