Robert "Bob" Perry '59
From the West Virginia Coal Mines to the White HouseMarch 2021
In the rugged southwestern corner of West Virginia, on one of the few areas of relatively level land, sits the little town of Oceana. The coal mines fuel the economy in this area some refer to as the Hatfield and McCoy region. Oceana, population 1,300, follows the regular rhythms of life in rural Appalachia. Many generations live in their small towns and work in the coal mines.
In 1957, a young Robert “Bob” Perry decided it was time for a change of scenery. He had dreams of attending the United States Naval Academy. So late that summer, at the urging of an old football coach, Bob and his ‘small suitcase’ boarded the family vehicle along with his dad and grandad and headed east for an eight-hour ride on old route 60. This would be the first time he had left the state of West Virginia.
The sixteen year-old Perry was on his way to begin his junior year of high school at Fork Union Military Academy. When he and his family entered the gates of FUMA, there was a quick goodbye that is familiar to many alums from that era. “They drove around the circle and said ‘Bobby, I think we drop you off here…...bye,’” said Perry. “To say I was frightened was an understatement, because all the upperclassmen were yelling and screaming.” This was a long way from Oceana High School where Bob was a big fish in a small pond. Military Schools in the 1950’s were at their height of popularity and the students reflected the competition that a full capacity schools provide.
Alpha Company 3rd platoon is where he would lay his head that first night…...and for the remainder of his two years at Fork Union Military Academy. He would never forget those he left back in West Virginia, in many ways living a life of service to them, but he had taken the first step in his journey of being different.
Sixty-two years later, on November 19th, 2019, Perry would return to the State of West Virginia. This time, instead of riding in a car on narrow roads with hairpin turns he was in a private “Gulfstream” jet, leaving his home in Charlottesville, Virginia, flying to the mountain state capital city of Charleston. The plane was owned by his good friend and successful philanthropists Albert H. Small. Perry thought he was attending a ceremony held by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice honoring a high school student who participated in the Albert H. Small Normandy Institute. Perry is one of the founding members and director of this institute that chooses 15 high school students to research and travel to Normandy, France, honoring the sacrifice the soldiers made on D-Day. There was a surprise in the works at the Governor’s ceremony. The flight to Charleston was an event where Perry was one of the honorees.
Bob Perry was awarded the Distinguished West Virginian Award. It honors those who have contributed significantly to West Virginia or West Virginians and have brought positive attention to the state. It honors those who excel in their field and have achieved national recognition; it is the highest honor that can be awarded by the Governor. It is an honor that only a few have received.
Firm foundation of Fork Union Military Academy
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Be sure to put your foot in the right place, then stand firm.” The journey for this young boy from a rural coal mining town to one of West Virginia’s highest honorees was not an easy one. But when Perry found himself in the right place, he always stood firm. This cadet who loved being in the library reading non-fiction, said his foundation at FUMA would shape the rest of his career. Despite initially battling food poisoning, Perry adapted to his new home. “My first year I was living in fear.” But FUMA transformed Perry. “I learned if you are really disciplined and really focused you can achieve more than you think you can…...It’s a life lesson, if learned and executed properly, leads to success.”
Success after FUMA did not come easy
After receiving an appointment to the United States Naval Academy, he was suddenly informed after enrolling that he would be disqualified. “My heart just went to my toes. I had an insufficient number of natural serviceable teeth. I had four teeth knocked out back in Oceana, and only had a partial bridge. Back then you had to have 20/20 vision, you couldn’t be flatfooted, and you had to have a certain number of natural teeth” Always one for a good wisecrack, Perry said, “Admiral, am I going to chew the enemy to death! I really don’t understand this sir.” But the Admiral said, “Well, it is hard for me to understand also.” Perry soon found himself walking the streets of Annapolis wondering what was next.
His first stop would be back on the campus of Fork Union Military Academy where the staff’s love for its cadets is always present. “Chaplain Spradlin and COL Crockett tried to take upon themselves and write the Navy for an exemption. They tried it and it didn’t work. But this was the support I saw in my senior year at Fork Union Military Academy from the staff. And I never asked them to do a thing. They just did it to help. They cared for the cadets.”
Perry soon found himself back in the state of West Virginia. Like many West Virginians, he went to work in the coal mines. “The coal mines in 1959 were going south.” After a scare in a flooding drift mine, he thought, “This is not for me.” With $12.45 in his pocket, he hitchhiked to Cleveland, Ohio in search of a new job and a new life.
Despite his lack of knowledge and the stigma that West Virginians were not good workers, Modern Tool and Dye hired Perry. He worked hard in the factory, sending money back home to care for his parents, grandparents, and occasionally his aunt and uncle. The seeds of helping others through development work were planted, even if he was just helping his own family. These seeds would grow into someone who thought of others before himself, the same attributes modeled by the faculty and staff at FUMA.
Sickness would take Perry back home to West Virginia but this time not for long. He had developed a relationship with West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd after his appointment to the Naval Academy. Byrd had connections at West Point where he could help Perry bypass his dental issues and receive an appointment. “I took my orders to report to West Point in June of 1962 but dad was hospitalized with black lung and then I wrote Senator Byrd….my dad is sick and I’ve got to work.” Byrd said, “Come to Washington and I will give you a job.”
Standing firm in our nation’s capital
Transitioning to life in Washington D.C. was difficult but past experiences served Perry well. “This time I had a car plus 24 dollars and change in my pocket.” When he arrived, he was not welcomed by his colleagues with open arms. “I had no coat and tie……I walked in and all these young people had coats and ties on, and they said, ‘Where are you from?’ I said West Virginia. ‘Oh, your dad must own coal mines?’” No, Perry would say, “he’s a coal miner, and they would just walk away from me. But Senator Byrd gave me a job and for the first thirty days I slept in my car until I could get a paycheck.”
Once Perry settled into his new surroundings, earning a paycheck and having a place to live, he was able to continue his education at George Washington University because of its proximity to his job and the abundance of night classes. He would earn a B.S. in Business Administration from G.W. and eventually over the years complete graduate studies in marketing at New York University and the Wharton School of Business, followed by advanced management programs at Rutgers University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Michigan.
Over the next fifty plus years, this self-proclaimed ‘ridge-runner’ from West Virginia would be a fixture of teamwork, discipline, and compassion inside the beltway. His public sector service includes time at the White House as a member of the President’s Executive Exchange Program, on Capitol Hill, and with the U.S. Army. On the corporate side, Perry was Chairman and CEO of BSI Americas as well a senior executive in manufacturing, marketing, public affairs, and telecommunications. As Vice President of Public Affairs for AT&T in Washington, D.C., he oversaw many of the corporation’s sponsorship programs, including those at the National Gallery of Art, the Kennedy Center, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Smithsonian Institution. Perry is also the Director Emeritus for the National Humanities Trust.
Impacted by FUMA
Like many other great leaders in Washington D.C., Perry stood firm in what he believed, served others and our country, and made this world a better place. “As a teenager I was not a disciplinary problem, but I was not very disciplined. In my last year in “A” company we won every award the academy had. Commandant Hensley came to our farewell house meeting and announced it was the first time in the history of the school that a company had taken every record. That had a big impact on me. The company just pulled together and really worked at it……Fork Union has been a big part of my life and helped me both directly and indirectly in ways I find out even at the age of 80.”
Work, Wisdom and Wealth
As member of the board and past president of the alumni association, Perry has been a role model of giving back to Fork Union Military Academy. “I have been in development my whole life. You have got to either work, provide your wisdom, or provide your wealth. The three Ws. I have tried to provide all three to Fork Union. It is very important that you give. We need to focus on those opportunities and places like FUMA that really make a difference. If we don’t give back, the opportunity for another generation is going to disappear.”