Interview with Father Michael Perry

In late November, Father Michael Perry was interviewed at Our Lady of Refuge, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, so that through the Connector we might share an update on his whereabouts.  For twenty-three years Father Michael Perry was the Chaplain of Pratt Institute, and for twenty-one of those years he served as the Faculty Advisor to Tau Delta Phi - Tau Sigma Fraternity, and Delta Gamma Theta, when the organization reverted to being a local fraternity.  Following is the slightly edited transcript of the interview conducted by Bro. Gil Gerald, Spring '70/Architecture '74.

Gil Gerald: For those who fondly recall the times at the House while you were our Faculty Advisor, as well as those who were not fortunate enough to experience those times, could you talk a little about how it is you became our Faculty Advisor, when was that, and when did that all come to an end?

Father Perry: Well, it's easy to remember how it happened. The previous Faculty Advisor, when he was leaving, came to me and said 'I want to give you the biggest treasure I have.' That was Dean Gene P. Dean...and I don’t know how many years he had been Faculty Advisor to the fraternity, but he loved the fraternity like a father loves his sons...and kind of almost out of the blue he just came and he said to me ‘I want you to take over,’ and I said yes!

Gil Gerald: He was leaving Pratt, I had graduated in ’74 and he was there all the years I was there, from the fall of ’68 to the spring of ’74, so he was there...

Father Perry: Oh I think he was there when Charles Pratt founded the school (laughter). He was part of the institution for a long, long time, and he was loved by everybody; he was a great, great man. I don’t even recall what his job was.

Gil Gerald: He was the Dean of Admissions. He was located in North Hall, and he used to spot me walking across the campus and he used to say to me, “you are walking too fast, why are you walking so fast, where are you going so fast?” He always kidded me about that.

Father Perry: Was it true?

Gil Gerald: Yes!

Father Perry: Well slow down, slow down. He was a great man and he had tremendous affection for the fraternity. He was a very generous and a very loving person. My guess is he looked around...in a sense he was synonymous with the fraternity...everybody of your generation knew him and loved him...and he wanted someone who would take over in the same spirit. It is certainly in that spirit that I did take over. Being Faculty Advisor to the fraternity was definitely one of the greatest hats that I wore in my time at Pratt.  I came to Pratt in 1973, I think it was, and I was there for twenty-three years. I don’t know, maybe two years after I arrived, when Gene Dean left and I took over. Then when I left, I handed it over to a guy who worked in the Library whose name I don’t remember, and then I don’t know what happened. One of the smartest moves that I made when I left Pratt was to close the door behind me. But one of the great things that happened was, through the fraternity’s Alumni Association, to be called back into that circle of brothers. Because, just like with yourself, the fraternity was a really important part of our stay at Pratt. Not everything that happened at the fraternity was exactly what I would call enriching, but it was enlightening. I mean, you know, sitting there for three hours determining how many kegs of beer we were going to have at a party, you know, when I had to go to the bathroom...a point of personal privilege, you know, just didn’t get me there in time (laughter). Some really terrific people passed through that house.

Gil Gerald: What was your role or responsibility as Faculty Advisor? How would you describe that?

Father Perry: Basically to keep the brothers out of the Vice President’s office (laughter). I would come in on a Monday morning and the lights would be blinking on my phone and I would pick up the phone and it would be the Vice President, especially under Dr. Rice, and she would say come up to my office immediately, and I would come up to her office, and she would say, ‘your boys.’ I would just kind of say, ‘okay,’ and I would listen to her tell me what had happened over the weekend, what my boys had done, and then she would wink and I would wink, and then we would call the boys in and then she would yell at them.  I don’t think she ever once took action against them because she loved the fraternity, she understood. It was basically to cover the behinds of the boys.

Gil Gerald: So what was your approach to serving in that role? What are the kinds of things that you did in that role?

Father Perry: Be a shoulder to lean on, be a mediator sometimes...be a taxi to the airport if someone had to go home in an emergency, dry tears...try to be an adult, which is not always easy for me...

Gil Gerald: As you speak it contrasted a little bit with Gene Dean who we were very close to.  I don’t recall Gene ever coming to a meeting, but he may have.  I was only there four or five years at the time...

Father Perry: Oh, interesting...

Gil Gerald: But he was always very accessible, and he lived in the Dorm, on the top floor of the Dorm (Willoughby Hall), up there, and we had some audiophiles, music lovers, and we would go up to Gene Dean’s apartment and he had the best speakers you could find...

Father Perry: Oh yeah, I inherited part of his record collection when he moved, which I donated to Lincoln Center, because they were great, great records.

Gil Gerald: Apparently, in your role, you were present in the house...

Father Perry: Yeah, yeah, it was also good for me, I enjoyed it.  It was a way for me to relate on another level.  I had fun, it was great fun, it was fun when it was fun, and when it wasn’t fun it was work, and I put to work the skills that I had, and sometimes the lines were blurred, so we kind of worked through it.

Gil Gerald: You said sometimes it was enlightening...

Father Perry: Yeah, I was certainly old enough to be everybody’s older brother and at one point old enough to be their father.  But not having a younger brother and not having any children of my own, you know, I learned about what adolescent boys go through, and there are some of the brothers who could tell you about some funny stories about me walking in on them in embarrassing situations...and why not?

Gil Gerald: Well that was pretty cool...What are the moments or occasions that are particularly memorable to you?

Father Perry: I think...um...particularly memorable was singing ‘Hanna,’ which I never could get the words to (laughter)...so I would just stomp my feet and put my shoulders around everyone’s shoulder, like everybody else...and also when the pledges had to come in to my office and boom chug-a-lug me or in any place that they were, like in the Pie Shop and stuff like that, and it was just great fun...

Gil Gerald:  This is called boom chug-a-lug?

Father Perry: Boom chug-a-lug, yes, it may have been after your time, it was a new torture that was invented, and it was done at the top of their voices as they stomped their feet in time and said boom chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug, boom chug-a-lug, or something or the other, SIR, Father Perry, SIR...and there were two things about it that were really fun. First of all it was funny, and secondly, there was a lot of respect shown to me that meant an awful lot to me and there were times when it was rough being at Pratt, especially towards my later years there, the last few years that I was there. It got to be really tough, it was not an easy place for me as a Catholic priest to be.  Most of the time it was fantastic, but there were times when several of the administrators had changed and I almost had to justify my existence there. You know, at one point I ran orientation...the yearbook, I did all kinds of stuff even though I didn’t work for Pratt. I worked at Pratt, but I did not work for Pratt...and yet when a certain few people came in it got really, really...I was on the defensive.  I never felt I was on the offensive, but at the end there I was on the defensive...and so when the brothers, especially the pledges would do their thing I knew that the brothers had my back, and that was what fraternity was about.

Gil Gerald: Interesting; I notice that there is a bench at Pratt that is in your honor.  Could you say something about that?

Father Perry: Actually, I bought that bench, because I was at Pratt for twenty-three years, and that was a significant part of my life and my ministry as a priest, and I wanted not so much to be memorialized as much as I wanted to say I was here. I wanted people to come back and say, I remember him, because I know that for most people I was a positive memory, not for everybody...there are some unfortunate stories and unfortunate mistakes that I made...you know...but I would say for most people I would say it was a positive experience.  The bench is there just to say ‘Kilroy was here.’  The Institute was at the time was charging $2,000 a bench and they gave me a 'family' discount.

Gil Gerald: Oh, okay! We’ve been asked, what’s the latest on Father Perry?  What has happened since that time? What are you doing now?

Father Perry: When I left Pratt I was assigned to a parish in Breezy Point, which is down at the end of Flatbush Avenue. You go all the way down to the end of Flatbush Avenue, you turn right and you go into a gated community where everybody is Irish, including the Italians and everybody else. I was there for two years and then I was assigned to the place where I am now, which is in the middle of Flatbush, just a couple blocks away from Brooklyn College. It’s called Our Lady of Refuge...I have been here going on sixteen years. It’s a great place, it’s poor...we've got a beautiful Art Deco church.  At one time the neighborhood was wealthy and it is probably going back to that again.  We have houses in the area that are going for $3 million. Some actress just bought a house.  She paid $2.5 million for it and she is putting $1 million worth of work into it. So that is the real estate around here...so the neighborhood is changing again.  The three languages in the parish are English, Spanish and Creole, from Haiti. I speak French and kind of a little of English too (laughter). I don’t speak Spanish, I smile in Spanish. I love it here, it’s a great place to be...this neighborhood is an amazing neighborhood where West Indian and Caribbean people came and really took root.  The housing stock in this neighborhood is amazing and there are two lines, the B and the Q, and the F line is here too, so everyone wants to live here...it is almost suburban like.

Gil Gerald: Do you have anything you would want to convey as a message to the members of the DGT Alumni Association?

Father Perry: Yeah, remember what it was like when you were pledging because you will never have that feeling again, because it was something really special. Remember who was in your pledge class and who was in your family tree and all that, and come back. The TDF stuff doesn’t mean that you’re just going to send flowers, it means something...and we’ve all grown up and we’ve all gone away, but there was something that was very sincere about that and it got us through.  You know; how many times you spent in all ‘nighters’ getting one another through impossible classes and stuff?  We did it and there is no reason for it not to continue, and even if it is for the sake of nostalgia, it is a nostalgia that you are entitled to...you know, you earned it by listening to Bolero until it was going to come out of your pores. You earned a right to have that nostalgia and there is nothing wrong with remembering.  Kahlil Gibran, in The Prophet, said ‘remembrance is a form of meeting’...and way back then you were accepted into the fraternity you said you would be there...be there!

Addendum (January 18, 2017):  At the end of the interview, after I had turned off the recorder, we went on chatting, particularly about changes underway. Father Perry said something that I found to be profound and important. I turned on the recorder, but in the end, the recording of that part of the conversation was lost. Father Perry basically said, and I am paraphrasing from memory, that it is the values that we carry forward that matter, the idea of strong life-long friendships for example.