Midwest Modest--and More | 1, 2
'An ambassador for Columbia'
Perry's caring nature goes beyond the issues of the neighborhood and into his relationships with the people around him. Perry seems to know everyone in Columbia; no matter who that person is or where that person works, Perry either knows that person or has a mutual acquaintance.
But Perry is not simply an acquaintance collector; instead, he cares about the people he knows. He keeps up with what people are doing and how they are.
As Missouri Methodist's music director Charles Kyriakos puts it, "Perry was always a very friendly person - very easy to talk to and always interested in not only you as an individual, but your family."
"To this day, he's always asking about Stephen and Mary Beth (Kyriakos' children). Not because we work together. He's like that with others as well."
Alexander Pickard, a close friend of Perry's since the early 1960s, says Perry "could probably be an ambassador for Columbia."
"That's a little unusual in today's world, where people usually only have time for themselves and their immediate family," Pickard says. "I think Perry's immediate family is a very extended one."
One person who came to be a part of Perry's extended-immediate family was Jyles Whittler. Jyles was a custodian at Missouri Methodist who helped build the church building in the 1920s and 1930s.
Perry met Jyles when he first joined the church in the 1950s. The two formed a friendship that lasted until Jyles death in 1990. In his office behind the church's sanctuary, the Rev. Schenck reflects on the relationship.
"In some ways, I think Perry thinks Jyles was the most insightful staff member during those years," he says.
Schenck says that what impressed him most about the friendship was that it transcended lines of race and class. Perry is white. Jyles was African-American. Both grew up in the era of segregation.
"That relationship represents an attitude about people and about race that says a great deal about Perry as a man, and I've always admired that," the Rev. Schenck says.
Back in his living room, Perry says he misses Jyles, but that his relationship with Jyles was nothing out of the ordinary. They were just friends, he says.
Perry says he helped Jyles run errands, and, after Jyles retired from his custodian job, he would go to his house to see him.
"Sometimes he would call on the phone to - as it were - report something," he says.
"He was very much a part of the church," Perry says of his friend. "Tending to the church was a love of his, not just an 8-to-5 kind of job."
The ego of a diva
Perry's organ playing is not a 8-to-5 kind of job for him. In much the same way that Jyles cared for the church, Perry cares for his music.
Nearly every day, Perry can be seen making the several-block walk across M.U. campus from his house to the church. In the winter, he makes the trek bundled up in his overcoat, sometimes with a student-neighbor at his side.
Perry goes to the church to practice his organ. He will play for about two to three hours each day. Although he waves off the applause of his audiences, he obviously takes pride in his craft.
Sitting in his office in M.U.'s music school, a few doors down from where Perry's was when he instructed organ at the school, Pickard says that organists live in their own world and that they are soloists in their own right.
"I think an organist's ego would rival that of a diva or a conductor," Pickard says.
Perry, despite his outer modesty, also has that ego, Pickard asserts.
"As far as what he expects of himself and what he expects of the performances he is involved in," Perry has that ego, Pickard says.
Perry has reason to have that ego. He earned a master's degree studying organ at Indiana University, which has one of the most highly regarded music departments in the country. He is well-respected by other organ players in and around Columbia, many of whom have turned to him for advice on their instruments and on selecting literature to play.
'Like a good book'
One such organist is Peggy Bohnenkamp, Bohnenkamp, who plays for St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Fulton, took lessons from Perry about 15 to 20 years ago for some three years. Within the last five years, she resumed lessons with him, completing another semester-and-a-half of lessons.
Even now she says she will sometimes ask him for advice on how a certain piece should be played and about the technical aspects of unfamiliar selections.
Bohnenkamp says that Perry's dedication to playing the organ has encouraged her in her own experience with the instrument.
"He made organ playing like reading a good book," she says. "I wanted to go on to the next part."
Not all organ players will reach that next level of skill and ability, but Perry nonetheless encouraged other area organists as well, Bohnenkamp says.
"He knows they're not going to become concert pianists or anything, but he encourages them to do what they can do."
Perry has certainly done what he can do. He has taught, he has played, he has cared. Listen to him play while you still can, but just don't make a big deal about it.
Perry wouldn't want that.