A Life: Ella Perry ‘genuinely liked people and wanted to see that everyone got along’

On Nov. 21, 2002, Ella Perry, of Windsor, Vt., holds a photograph of herself in 1944, when she learned to fly at Bugbee Airfield in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Tom Rettig) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

On Nov. 21, 2002, Ella Perry, of Windsor, Vt., holds a photograph of herself in 1944, when she learned to fly at Bugbee Airfield in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Tom Rettig) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file — Tom Rettig

Ella Perry celebrates her 100th birthday in April 2023. (Family photograph)

Ella Perry celebrates her 100th birthday in April 2023. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Ella Perry in a 1945 portrait. (Family photograph)

Ella Perry in a 1945 portrait. (Family photograph) Family photograph

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 11-27-2023 3:31 AM

WINDSOR — Motorists who use the Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge may at times wonder whether the anachronistic warning that failure to walk one’s horse across the bridge will result in a $2 fine was really enforced or whether it was put there to humor the modern day traveler.

Ella Perry knew the truth.

“She always got a kick out of people who didn’t walk their horse across the bridge and watch them get fined,” Perry’s granddaughter, Denise Matthews, of Brownsville, said. “She thought that was so funny.”

Perry, who was 7 or 8 at the time, lived in a small red house — that is no longer standing — by the bridge. She attended a school house slightly north on Route 12A before the family moved to Windsor near the fairgrounds, Matthews said.

“When she was older, we would drive around on ‘little adventures,’ and she had all these stories about where she lived,” Matthews said.

Perry saw much of what is no longer part of the local landscape and lived through an era that was dominated by a few large employers in Windsor, one of which employed her. She died July 25 at the age of 100 after a period of declining health.

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Perry quietly made a difference in the lives of many — children, older adults, people who were homebound and prison inmates — through her work and volunteer service to her community.

“She was special, that’s for sure,” her daughter Beverly, of Goffstown, N.H., said. “She had a great sense of humor and was always a positive person. She genuinely liked people and wanted to see that everyone got along.”

After her children were grown, Perry had a number of jobs, including as a caregiver and working with a bookbinder in Woodstock.

Her father came to Vermont from Canada, and her mother, who was born in Providence. R.I., and orphaned at a young age, arrived in Vermont when she was adopted by a family in Lyndonville.

“She was put on an ‘orphan train’ and sent to Vermont,” her daughter said.

Perry’s parents met when her mother was in her late teens. Her father worked for a time on the railroad and finished his career at Cone-Blanchard Machine in Windsor. Perry was the fifth of the couple’s seven children.

“She grew up poor, and she and my grandfather worked hard for everything they had, and they were proud of that,” said Matthews, whose mother, Bette, died in 2015.

Perry’s family said she was a devoted mother and grandmother, a strong believer in the value of education, a lover of writing and books and a bit of an adventurer.

In her late teens Perry took a job at Goodyear, the shoe manufacturer in Windsor, and did piece work as a trimmer. While there, she met her future husband, Evans Joseph Perry, and when he was sent overseas during World War II, they remained in contact. They wrote back and forth and his letters, Beverly said, were full of romantic lines and phrases, but her responses spoke only of such mundane topics as the weather.

“It was so funny to read those letters,” Beverly said.

Upon Evans’ return, the couple married in 1946 and shared 73 years together before his death in 2019.

Perry lived in an era when the expected role of women was confined mostly to that of a homemaker, so learning to fly a plane was rather unusual.

Beverly said a friend of her mother’s at Goodyear was taking flying lessons and asked Perry if she was interested in coming along.

“My mother accepted and took lessons at Bugbee Flying School (in White River Junction),” Beverly said.

While her friend never completed the instruction requirements, Perry earned her solo license.

“Her goal was to do a solo flight, and she was able to do that,” Beverly said.

Years later, Perry wrote an article about the experience and it was published in Piper Magazine in 2001, which came as a bit of a surprise to her daughter.

Beverly said her mother did not continue her formal education after high school but did a lot of writing and made education a focus for her children. She took a correspondence course in newspaper writing and had articles published in local papers.

“She worked hard at it,” Beverly said. “She had a room that was full of nothing but writing books. She read them cover to cover, and she loved to rewrite and rewrite.”

Beverly, who earned a degree in English, focused on writing, poetry in particular, and estimates she made “hundreds” of submissions to poetry contests and magazines. The response was always the same: a rejection slip.

“I never got anything published,” Beverly said.

So when her mother submitted her article on learning to fly in the 1940s, Beverly was supportive but tried to not let her mother get her hopes too high.

“I told her not to give up but she would probably get a pink slip, and she had to just keep trying to get something published,” Beverly said, laughing out loud when she remembered what happened after offering that advice. “Next thing I know, she gets an acceptance and a check in the mail for the very first thing she sent in.”

Perry had a subsequent article published in the same magazine about a person who built planes and while she wrote a lot of stories, Beverly said she never submitted them for consideration.

Matthews said her grandmother was self-critical when it came to her writing and while she enjoyed it, the flying article was one of the rare occasions where she believed her work was good enough to share with others.

“She would have made a great English teacher. Proper grammar was so important to her,” Matthews said.

Perry’s love of books, writing and reading was reflected in her volunteer work as a tutor to children and adults. Perry shared her love of reading with inmates at the Windsor prison, where she also helped them prepare for life after their release. In her later years, Perry would visit Cedar Hill Nursing Home with a stack of books.

“She was old then and brought her books and tea cups, and she would read to the residents and have tea with them,” Beverly said. “Education was very important to her, and she pushed that focus on her two children.”

A devout Catholic, Perry was a member of the Catholic Daughters of America and a Eucharistic Minister at St. Francis of Assisi Church. She regularly visited people who were homebound and those living in the nursing home, which at the time was at the hospital, to give them communion.

Perry’s brightest light shone with children.

Matthews said her grandmother worked for a time at a children’s center, and one Christmas she volunteered her husband to dress as Santa Claus while she dressed her granddaughter as an elf.

“She arranged the party with gifts and other stuff for the kids who were less-privileged,” Matthews said. “A lot of that love came from her growing up less-privileged. She really loved children.”

The daughter of a single mother, Matthews said her grandparents “practically raised me.”

“When I needed advice on raising my daughter, she was the first person I would go to,” Matthews said. “She was my rock.”

Summers at her grandparents’ camp in Ryegate, Vt., created special memories for Matthews.

“Those were some of the best summers, being up there with them,” she said. “She was just an angel.”

“She was a fantastic mother,” added Beverly. “And she loved it.”

Perry involved herself fully in her daughters’ activities, including swim meets.

“My sister and I were on the swim team, and she and my father never missed a meet,” Beverly said. “Every single Sunday, they were there in the hot, blazing sun, cheering us on. They were in the minority. Not many parents went to every meet.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.