FEATURE — Fall 2003
   

 

Shirley Hendricks Perry

 

 

An Agent of Change

Alumna Shirley Hendricks Perry has relished the many twists and turns of her varied career path, including working for the CIA, founding a school in Luxembourg City, and helping establish a Commission on the status of Women. And let's not forget acting in the theater, and all else in between!

 

 

by Betsy Rogers

In a truly action-packed half-century, Shirley Hendricks Perry has been a spy, an educator, a feminist champion, a senior aide to the Canadian consul general in Boston, and a clinical research associate with Quintiles Transnational, a contract pharmaceutical organization. In the midst of this astonishing array of professional positions, she married, raised a son and daughter, and earned an M.B.A.

Now retired, she's returned to theater, a lifelong passion and her undergraduate major at Washington University, where she received a bachelor's degree—and a Phi Beta Kappa key—in 1950.

When she reviews her life's remarkable narrative, Perry acknowledges relishing the breadth of experience as much as the experiences themselves. "I have enjoyed the diversity as much as any one position," she says. "It has all been very rewarding."

Perry was born in Alton and raised in Moro, Illinois. A thespian at Alton High School—"I think I was in about every play," she recalls—she chose English and drama as majors at the University and blossomed in the liberal arts world. "I was there to learn as much as possible," she says, "not to be a grinding preprofessional."

As things turned out, it was exactly the background the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sought in its new employees. Not that Perry anticipated working for the CIA: "They sort of found me," she notes. She had spotted a cryptic message on a University employment bulletin board announcing that a "government agency" was recruiting graduates. When she followed up, she found herself interviewing with—and hired by—the CIA.

Everything she studied at the University was helpful to her, she observes. The drama background stood her in good stead as she invented and lived out cover stories. World literature and history courses taught her much about other countries. Composition classes honed her writing skills.

Perry became a case officer at the CIA but in 1952 was sent as an operations assistant to "a particularly interesting place at a particularly interesting time"—Vienna, Austria, then a partitioned city within the Soviet zone of a partitioned nation.

"These were the most frigid days of the Cold War," she recalls, "and Vienna was the easternmost outpost of the Cold War," base of the agency's most concentrated efforts to penetrate Soviet intelligence.

"The whole team was young, dedicated, and very successful," she recalls. Perry was part of the station's first major recruiting breakthrough, turning a Soviet spy into a double agent. She monitored his travels, the information he supplied, and the other spies he reported on. "I was the 'bookkeeper,'" she says. "I put the fragments together."

Still in Vienna in 1954, she married Robert Perry, a U.S. Army intelligence officer. "We were two spooks together," she recalls with a laugh. She continued with the CIA until 1964, serving in Munich and Washington, D.C., and traveling widely in Europe and the Middle East.

 


"... I found each aspect challenging and satisfying, and I hope that I was able to contribute, to do some good along the way," Perry says.


In 1964 the Perrys gave up undercover work and moved to Boston, where her then-husband took a job with the Bank of Boston. The bank sent them to Luxembourg City in 1970 to implement his proposal for a subsidiary there. By now they had two children, aged 5 and nearly 3, and Shirley Perry discovered that there was no English-language school in Luxembourg.

She set to work. She gathered executives of American companies operating in Luxembourg and persuaded them to pay tuition for their employees' children. She met with education officials and was given a building for $1 a year. She recruited Americans and Luxembourgers as teachers. And she opened the American School of Luxembourg, serving as director and board chair.

"The school taught an American curriculum but was open to any foreign national in Luxembourg. And you know," she adds with satisfaction, "the school is still there."

In 1975, in the midst of the women's rights movement, they returned to Boston, where Perry became active in the National Organization of Women and the League of Women Voters.

She and other advocates worked with the governor of Massachusetts to establish a Commission on the Status of Women. He promptly appointed her and 29 others as charter commissioners. While on the commission, Perry conceived, wrote, and launched an economic literacy program for women. Chairing the commission's Education Committee, she worked with publishers to improve women's portrayal in textbooks. She kept up a busy public speaking schedule.

Her husband, meanwhile, had proposed another Bank of Boston expansion, this one in Canada, and in 1980 they moved to Toronto. Perry used this interlude to return to graduate school, earning an M.B.A. at York University.

On the veranda of Square Books, one of the country's top independent bookstores, overlooking the Courthouse Square. Shirley Hendricks Perry chose Oxford, Mississippi, to retire to because it combines a major university with a literary environment and benign climate.

"This was a real learning experience," she observes. "It was focused, intense, and extremely practical. I met a lot of interesting people." In fact, her networking there led to her next international adventure—a position as political and economic officer and senior aide to the Canadian consul general in Boston that she held from 1987, after their return to the United States, until 1994.

At the time, Canada was very eager for a free-trade agreement with the United States. Perry monitored New England attitudes and developments bearing on this and other U.S.-Canadian issues and helped the consul general shape policy initiatives. Among many projects, she helped establish Canadian studies programs at American universities.

From 1995 to 1999, she broadened her already well-rounded résumé at Quintiles Transnational, working first as a business development associate and then as a clinical research associate, recruiting and evaluating investigators and sites for clinical trials in osteoporosis, growth hormone deficiency, and autoimmune disease.

Meanwhile, she had returned to the theater as a member of Boston's Fenway Players and the Chekhov Film and Drama Company at Boston University (BU). With the Fenway Players, she performed the lead roles of Arkadina in The Sea Gull in 1992, and then she traveled with the BU group in 1993 to the Chekhov Drama Festival in Yalta and to St. Petersburg. "I went as a stand-in and had a ball," she says.

The same intellectual curiosity and zest for living has led her now to Oxford, Mississippi, which she chose for retirement because it combines a major university with a literary environment and a benign climate. She has performed twice with Theatre Oxford, including the lead role in Love Letters in February 2003, and has been an extra in three films. The latest of these, 21 Grams, is the work of the rising young Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and stars Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro.

In addition to theater and film work, she is secretary of the Lafayette County Democratic Executive Committee, an active Lutheran, and a volunteer at the Interfaith Compassion Ministry, an organization that helps the indigent with rent, utility, and medical bills.

So her pace has not slowed. She is involved in the lives of her daughter, Andrea, who will graduate in 2004 from the Syracuse University College of Law, and her son, Rob, a graphic designer in New York City. And she's working on her memoirs, which she hopes to publish next year, chronicling her career path's surprising twists and turns. To the comment that hers has been a remarkable life, she has a simple but energetic response: "It still is!"

She adds: "I've been very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I found each aspect challenging and satisfying, and I hope that I was able to contribute, to do some good along the way."

Betsy Rogers is a free-lance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.