May 27, 1999
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Memorial Minute: William Graves Perry Jr.


William Graves Perry Jr.

William Graves Perry Jr. was fond of saying that "like the rest of us I was born at an impressionable age." He started life in Paris in 1913. After graduating from St. Mark's School, he received both his bachelor's and master's degrees from Harvard where he studied English and Greek, and later published with his former teacher, Alston Hurd Chase, a translation of Homer's Iliad. From his first 10 years of teaching history and English at Rivers School in Brookline and, later, Williams College, where he was also an assistant dean, he developed, he said, "a fateful curiosity about the ways in which so many of my students succeeded in not learning that which I was teaching them so well."

He returned to Harvard in 1946 to found and then lead the Bureau of Study Counsel for 33 years, during which time he also served as member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and as professor of education at the Graduate School of Education. From these positions, Bill Perry simultaneously practiced five distinct professions -- college administrator, counselor to college students, supervisor to counselors-in-training, professor to graduate students of psychology and education, and researcher-theorist in college-age development.

In all of these professions his stance blended a durable sensitivity to human suffering, a celebrant's awe of ordinary courage, and a contagious conviction that there is fun to be found in any of life's moments. Bill regularly nourished his colleagues with the instruction and surprise he could craft into an English sentence.

About administration he said, "I used to resent the interruptions to my work, until I realized the interruptions were my work." And, "Good administration involves the equitable distribution of injustice."

About the counselor's need to be devoted chiefly to listening he said, "When you have the experience during your counseling of being patient, what you are feeling is impatience." And, "If a fellow is up Shit Creek without a paddle, and you get into the canoe with him, that makes two people up Shit Creek without a paddle."

About the students who came for counseling he said, "When someone comes to me, I always ask myself, 'What do they want -- and what are they going to do to keep from getting it?'" And: "What do you mean, 'How can I stand listening all day to students' problems?' I don't listen to their problems; I listen to their courage."

When asked by a very green dean what was meant exactly by "guidance and counseling," Bill ordered the young man and his wife to a series of sumptuous dinners with with him and his wife, Mary, each followed by careful listening to a selection of Bill's Bureau tapes. After hours of such, the green dean was puzzled. "Bill," he said, "what is going on is not psychology. It sounds more like theology." Bill shut the tape recorder off. "Now you know," he said.

About psychological theories he said, "The wisdom doesn't come from the theories; the theories come from the wisdom. And the wisdom comes from the defeat of all the more attractive alternatives." And, "With all these theories, it would be a good thing, of course, to keep an open mind. But the problem with an open mind is that it's so drafty."

About teaching he said, "Every student in my class has a completely different teacher." And, "Premature moral judgment is precisely what stands between many an able student and a liberal education."

Bill Perry practiced his five professions with such instructive lan that today generations of therapists, researchers, teachers, and administrators carry him with them -- not to mention the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of former students whose lives he touched by his ability to provide for people a palpable experience of being listened to and heard. His book, Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years, is a living classic, a new edition of which was just published this year.

Bill Perry lived a big life away from the academy as well as inside it. As his grandson said at his memorial service, Bill was "a formidable raconteur, sailor, an accomplished designer/carpenter, and a man deeply committed to the conservation and enjoyment of the salt marshes of Massachusetts, despite the greenhead flies." Mary made their home a haven for friends, relatives, and colleagues, hosting them warmly amidst countless burning candles, hand-carved decoy ducks, and endless supplies of fine wine and hard liquor. He loved to tell and listen to a good story, and he loved to drink. ("When I'm drinking and driving I'm in complete control of the situation. Only problem is, the situation is about 10% of what's really going on.")

"Most people only put one foot into the stream of life," Bill Perry used to say, "keeping the other foot firmly planted on the solid bank --which isn't there." His most familiar greeting or self-introduction was a simple, "Bill Perry here." His colleagues, students, and counselees experienced as a gift his ability to be so fully present, to hear them so well -- the ability of this man who wore a hearing aid in each ear.

On January 12, 1998, Bill Perry died of pneumonia at the age of 84. He is survived by his wife, Mary, his daughter, Lee, his stepson, Kevin Frank, and his grandson, Brendan Frank. They would know best that it is fitting we conclude this brief memorial with a stanza written and performed for Bill by his counseling staff at a musical tribute upon his retirement as director of the Bureau of Study Counsel:

He's not the very picture of a modern-day psychologist.

No tests, no pipes, no jargon; for no system an apologist.

And if he is a poet just as much as he's a scientist,

It's 'cause to him the theory's always

smaller than the client is.

Respectfully submitted,

Carol Gilligan Robert Kegan (Chair) Theodore Sizer

 


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College