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!
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 degreeand a Phi Beta Kappa keyin
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 recallsshe 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 withand hired bythe 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
"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
"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 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 adventurea 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,
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
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."