Caption: “The Storm Aftermath” by my friend, Perry Harrison, 2006. Perry sketched this North Carolina couple shortly after a crop-destroying storm, the farmer looking forlornly out the farmhouse window.
Last Sunday afternoon I went to a little church out in the rolling hills and farmlands near Pittsboro, NC. It was to pay last respects to a new friend, someone I’d gotten to know over the last four years. Perry Harrison was his name. He was the superintendent of schools for Chatham County in North Carolina for 26 years. I knew him best as an artist from lunches at Virlie’s Grill with LaVerne Thornton when we went over LaVerne’s stories and Perry’s illustrations for LaVerne’s latest book, “You Ain’t Moses”, his collection of essay on practicing servant leadership.
Now, I know it is usual not to speak ill of the dead, or to list out any negative quirks of character, especially at a memorial service. But, the three grown-up memorialists and a young granddaughter remembering his life suggested to me just how extraordinary Perry was.
He was a man of faith; his favorite hymn, which he chose for this service was “Trust and Obey”.
I believe its words applied more to him and his faith than it did to anyone else. Those words guided his life; they were not meant to direct others. Certainly I, a lapsed churchgoer, never felt like he expected me to be more than whatever it is I am. He accepted me, for some reason, freely sharing of his rural background and views and was always interested in what I had to say. The speakers confirmed that’s the way he was on the job, taking time to hear from other people, taking time to listen, taking time to visit.
What did I hear about Perry and his leadership that Sunday?
A persuasive listener. One of the speakers related how Perry would listen to him and, then, inexplicably, the speaker would leave Perry’s office having changed his mind on whatever topic it was.
I already knew he had a sly sense of humor. His granddaughter confirmed this with a tale of how “Poppy” would take the time to play school with her. She’d be the teacher and he’d be the “bad boy”!
He was in touch with his community, “riding the roads” to all the county schools regardless of weather.
Just doing the job was hardly enough for Perry. He used his gift for drawing to benefit others, always free – a deal he’d made with God along the lines of “If You help me get better and better at drawing, I’ll never charge a penny for my art.” (See below for more examples of his unique, self-taught style.)
His art facilitated his community involvement: each year he’d draw the Kiwanis calendars to raise funds for scholarships and he’d draw for the church bulletin. At our lunches, Perry always had a stash of drawings (copies) to give me – he must have thought I needed some of these; he knew of my childhood immigration to the USA as a refugee. My favorite drawings are from his rural up-bringing. Those scenes feature him and his brothers in country settings, amidst farmers swapping stories in the general store, his family in the farm-house kitchen, the young Perry playing by the wood stove alongside the sleeping hound dog, his mom cooking. His outdoor scenes describe a hardscrabble type of farming – yet in a setting of Elysian hills - his dad behind a mule powered plow.
He made a difference. At our lunches at Virlies’s there was no end of people coming up to say hello and see how we was doing. In the USA, nowadays, a superintendent of schools rarely lasts beyond 4 or 5 years before having to move on. Perry superintended for 26 years, including during the complex years of integrating white and black students.
An active innovator, many of the current programs in Chatham County first appeared under Perry’s guidance.
He was involved directly in building new schools for the county’s growing population; each received his attention. He’d make and draw suggestions to the architects.
A balanced life. Perry always made time for family. He never rushed family connections, even when going out to frequent night meetings. Notably, each of the presenters and the pastor spoke directly to the family – seated in the front row of the church - and told them how much Perry loved them. One of the speakers mentioned how Perry would always speak of his family and he wanted to hear of his friends’ families.
Life slips away. During Perry’s last year LaVerne visited often and kept me up to date while I was away in Latvia. After I got back, I recall one of our last lunches, organized by LaVerne. By then, Perry was using a walker. While feeble, I’d still see that sparkle in his eyes when one of us, usually LaVerne, cracked a joke, usually a raunchy one. And, even in his sickness, he never forgot to bring me more of his drawings!
At service end, the late afternoon sun was out, lighting up the remaining fall leaves on the trees along the property lines of the farm fields, just like one of Perry’s drawings.
Three drawings from Perry’s prolific portfolio:
Caption: A detail from a barnyard drawing. That’s probably Perry drawing in the dirt. The sleeping dog re-appears in many of his drawings.
Caption: Detail of young man harvesting tobacco.
Caption: Panorama, from memory, of Perry’s family farm, Forsyth County, central NC.
© Copyright John Lubans 2015