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What's Up Magazine

What’s Up? Visionaries: Marsha Perry

Jan 19, 2016 04:37PM ● By James Houck
Wind back the clock a year-and-a-half ago to an otherwise ordinary day at the What’s Up? Media office. I field a phone call from a “Marsha” who says she has a bundle of information about the Crofton community’s 50th anniversary celebratory events, and she’d like a meeting in person to discuss. We agree to a day/time and she signs off “Marsha Perry” and “looking forward to getting together.” Hmmm. “Could it be?” I think to myself. “The Marsha Perry?” whose name I associated more so with her role in coaching ice skating to the Washington Capitals pro hockey team than that of her career as a state delegate. As a die-hard hockey and Caps fan growing up in the heyday 1980s and ’90s and having played the game myself at rinks across the State, I knew the Perry name well. Not only did she coach the Caps, but also just about anyone with two legs, a hockey stick, and a willingness to improve their game. And sure enough, when we met at the office, the dynamo that I remember having coached me back in the early ’90s was standing in front of me. Talk about a blast from the past. And yet, Marsha Perry was and is as much of a firecracker now as she had been during those practices and, I’m told, legislative sessions.

Truth is, Marsha Perry is a dynamic individual whose vision, insights, and body of work have helped transform the community—Crofton…Annapolis area…really Anne Arundel County and even the state—that she has called home for more than 50 years. Perhaps attributable to her pre-Revolutionary New Jersey ancestral roots, Perry’s reach and influence has pulled just about every thread in the social blanket—almost always with positive intention and consequence. “They were ‘community activists’ in their time and I believe that commitment was passed to my father who was my role model in many ways,” Perry says.

The daughter of a three-sport athlete-turned-entrepreneur/community service leader (Dad) and a high school mathematics teacher-turned-devoted mother of two, Perry was raised in Niagara Falls, New York before attending Elmira College and finishing with degrees from Cornell University in Industrial and Labor Relations, and Secondary Education.

By 1960, Perry had met her husband-to-be, Bob, while working in New York City and the couple would soon move to the Washington area, ultimately settling in a brand new community called Crofton, where raising their family—two sons and a daughter—took root. “We answered an ad in the Washington Post for a new community being built in Anne Arundel County and living there would put us close to our sailboat racing weekend life in Annapolis. We figured we would stay there a year or so, sell it for a profit, and move back to Washington where most of our friends lived. That was 50 years ago,” Perry says fondly.

Firmly planted in Crofton, Perry would gradually enter the political arena from the ground up—she taught Catholic school third grade, which parlayed into lobbying for Crofton’s first public school (Crofton Elementary and serving as its first PTA vice president), then serving as Director of Planning and Zoning on the Crofton Civic Association. It was the latter volunteer position that often had her testifying at the Arundel Center on local development issues, not the least of which was the aging Crofton sewage plant, a disturbing olfactory offender for residents.

“I established a Crofton odor alert and kept a diary of complaints. Thus the paper dubbed me ‘Crofton’s Sewer Lady’ and often referred to me as that when I finally ran for office. They had also written an article calling me ‘the classic volunteer.’ I much preferred that title, but must say ‘sewer lady’ was not easily forgotten and it did get me publicity during the eventual run for state office,” Perry explains, her sense of humor perfectly intact.

In 1985, Perry volunteered for Republican Delegate Bob Neall’s campaign for Congress. “When I told my husband that, he said ‘Why don’t you run for his seat in the House?’” Perry did…and she won, despite running as a Democrat in the most conservative Republican District (33) in the state. She was sworn in on her 50th birthday. “I decided I would simply transfer my Crofton involvements to state issues: children and their education, our natural environment, specifically the damage caused by overused and inefficient sewage plants that were dumping into our state rivers, unlined landfills also damaging our waters, a spiked increase in cancer often attributed to environmental influences, etc.,” Perry says.  

    During the next 12 years, Perry would champion change, not just for her District, but also the state. “When one serves in public office and sponsors successful legislation…such as Rails to Trails, protective lining of landfills, conservation and preservation protections, infant mortality reduction, etc., there are many honors bestowed,” Perry says with pensive reflection. “However, one that always meant the most to me was being Crofton’s Citizen of the Year in 1986.”

That honor was bestowed upon Perry, along with Debbie Risher, once more in 2015 as a thank you for the work the duo accomplished for the year-long celebration of Crofton’s 50th birthday.  

All the while, Perry enjoyed her “side career” as a figure and speed skating coach, which lasted some 30-plus years. In the early 1970s, the City of Bowie constructed its ice arena, a boon for the sports of figure skating and ice hockey. Herself a classically trained figure skater, Perry applied to teach skating lessons at the newly built rink, which she did. She became skating director, added ice hockey skating lessons for the boys, and within 10 or so years was hired by the Washington Capitals as their power skating coach. She even founded youth hockey camps and clinics with former Capital Craig Laughlin, which continue today.

But back to that office meeting between myself and Marsha…with herself having a rich body of both career achievements and personal enrichment, she was apt to share a slew of anecdotes, which were altogether fascinating and scholastic. With Crofton’s 50th on our agenda, she recalled the community’s origins, having been developed by Hamilton Crawford. As one of the very first residents, it was easy for Perry to walk-through the dichotomy of what Crofton represented in the early 1960s. On one hand, the community was built as an idyllic and prosperous residential neighborhood conveniently tucked between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore—perfect for growing, well-to-do families. On the other hand, it began as an exclusive community—the well-to-do’s allowed to purchase within its gates, white only. That didn’t sit well with Perry, who, with a dash of vigor and comedy, tells of her attempt to pry off a bolted “Whites Only” sign from the Crofton community gate, one late holiday evening with her close friend. “Imagine the two of us trying to climb this gate, yanking and tugging at this sign. Pitch dark outside, middle of the night, a bit warm from the holiday festivities…,” Perry says with a laugh.

I can’t help but think, today, how that tale is emblematic of her personality, career, and vision—strong-willed, passionate, and determined to make her community…our community…realize its potential.

James Houck