History is oft said to be what historians have the vision to find, shape and memorialize so that we may better understand and learn from our past. And in many ways, the history of Lewis County is as much about our historians as it is about our history: the Houghs; Byron Bowen; Art Einhorn; George Davis; the Van Arnums; Louis Mihalyi; George Cataldo…and on and on.
One who certainly belongs in that discussion is Dr. Jerry Perrin, the long-time curator and office manager of the Lewis County Historical Society. We must first confess, however, that writing anything about Jerry in this fashion is nothing we ever wanted to do: certainly not during a pandemic when friends and colleagues cannot get together to talk or grieve; and frankly, as a piece in memoriam, not ever.
Sadly, however, during Christmas week in the waning days of the godawful year that was 2020, the Historical Society lost an irreplaceable colleague and friend, and the County lost a fine historian, when Jerry passed away. Hopefully he’s at peace, but here at the Historical Society, even long afterwards, we remain heartbroken.
For those of you who had the pleasure of getting to know Jerry over the years, you will understand the depth of this loss. In many ways, Jerry had been the life blood of our Society for much of the past two decades, our heart and soul, and at times the very glue that held us all together.
He was a gentle spirit, a friendly voice, a tireless volunteer, a gifted historian, a thoughtful and curious mind, a driving force behind the restoration of Greystone (the General Walter Martin House), and a lover of historic buildings and cemeteries and glassware and flatware and coins and old books…my goodness, he had a list of interests that seemed endlessly to grow.
Always generous with his time; routinely going out of his way to help anyone with a question of genealogy or local history; patience was his strength whether someone needed a hand or an ear; and should anyone ever do anything for him, no matter how small, he was one of the most appreciative people you were ever likely to meet.
He was continually pulling some item out of his personal collection of antiques and giving it to a visitor, a friend or someone who showed him a kindness – because, well, that’s just the way he was.
So too is it worth a moment to speak about the intersection between Jerry the person and Jerry the historian; for Jerry actually came to history later in life. Many do not know this about him – and he did not often talk about it – but he was a gifted chemical engineer in his early years. He came out of Edwards in St. Lawrence County, where he graduated valedictorian. He would then go on to Syracuse University, where he graduated, magna cum laude, as the top student in chemical engineering. Following that, he got both a masters and then a PhD in chemical engineering, which turned him into “Dr.” Jerry Perrin. He would then go on to work in high-tech industrial development, where he was a highly-regarded member of many academic and professional organizations, filed for and held multiple patents in his own name, and published a number of scholarly articles.
Jerry spent a good bit of his life on the east coast outside Boston and the west coast in Seattle, but at some point, his interests turned to what he would call “old stuff.” He returned to northern New York, ultimately settling in Talcottville, buying the historic 200-year old Munn family house, opening an antiques business and, much to the community’s good fortune, volunteering at the Lewis County Historical Society. And what a volunteer he was.
His tireless dedication over the years would lead to service as both an officer and director of the Society, the chair at one time or another of most every committee we have, and ultimately the Society’s curator and office manager. And when periodically we would float the idea of making him “Executive Director,” he would turn it down as too lofty a title. Did we mention his humble nature and humility?
While you would think his hands were full within the walls of the our Society, he would also join and become an active member of both the Martinsburg Historical Society and the Lyons Falls History Association; he was historian for the town of Leyden; he served on the board of the Talcottville cemetery; he would regularly liaise with other historians, societies and museums around the County, sharing information and trying to be of help as he did; he was deeply involved in the North Country’s tri-county historians association, both attending and sponsoring events; he was an active member of the Professional Historians of New York State; he worked with any number of people to get historic places in Lewis County listed on the National Register; and when the Historical Society itself went through a tough patch a decade or so ago and much of its leadership disappeared, it’s fair to say that the Society might not have survived without Jerry’s presence and perseverance to hold everything together.
Some knew, but most did not, of the illnesses that followed his leukemia diagnosis a couple of years ago, graft vs host disease and myasthenia gravis. But while it certainly slowed him down, it did not diminish his interest in trying to help anyone looking for information or who came to the Historical Society. When his illness robbed him of the use of his legs for a period, he literally would crawl up flights of stairs to retrieve an artifact for someone. When his eyesight declined, he would look for information in a document or book with a big magnifying glass, or have a colleague read it to him – just so he could answer a question for someone. Even in his last days, on those occasions when he was strong enough to talk at length, he still loved to talk about history and the Historical Society and what was going on with all of us. His close friendships sustained him, but he was always insistent that we get back to people to tell them how much he valued the help, attention and love that others had shown for him through his long illness. Even someone’s quick note deserved a response, he would say.
Our words only but scratch the surface of who Jerry Perrin was and what he has meant to the Historical Society and the North Country community. Perhaps better are some of the many notes we received after his passing: “he was the absolute best”; “we have lost one of the greatest”; “a true gentleman”; “one of the nicest people I ever met”; “always friendly and helpful”; “a champion of preserving local history”; “really liked his kind and gentle manner”; “have been trying to find the right words – the very soul of the Historical Society”; “he was my friend”; “a very gifted historian”; “such a kind man and always brought me an antique thimble for Christmas”; “what a great, knowledgeable person”; “will always remember the cooperative spirit that was his”; “such a kind soul”; “his quiet, gentle spirit with his sparkling blue eyes always impressed me”; “generous with his time and intellect”; “never lacked in caring for the Society, it collections and community”; “a Lewis County treasure.” Hopefully their words give some sense of who this good man was. Jerry Perrin: a dedicated historian; a genuinely good and decent human being; our friend. We will miss him greatly.