The following tribute was presented by Barbara Bernstein, Executive Director of the Nassau County Chapter of the NYCLU, at their annual gathering on September 23rd, 2001 at the home of Bruce and Judith Clark. I doubt if there is anyone here who does not know someone, or know of someone, who was victim of the devastation at the World Trade Center on September 11th. That act of brutal terrorism is a tragedy not only for the whole nation, and indeed for the civilized world, but for our civil liberties family – it is also a personal and devastating loss. John Perry, the 38 year-old son of Pat and Jim Perry, brother of Joel and Janice, had been a lawyer for the NYPD for nine years and a member of the Nassau County NYCLU Chapter board of directors since 1994. On Tuesday morning, September 11, John went downtown to One Police Plaza to hand in his resignation. He was going to learn medical malpractice law. But when he got there, the WTC had been attacked and John, though he was not on duty, pitched in to help save those trapped. He grabbed a police jacket, joined some buddies and was on the first mezzanine of the Tower One when it collapsed. Some of his buddies made it out; John did not. His mother Pat has been a board member of the Nassau Chapter of the NYCLU for about a dozen years, chapter president for the past four and linchpin of the chapter. We all hope that our children absorb our civil liberties instincts but none that I know of have carried them so far as to become active CLU board members in their own communities. John was the only board member serving alongside his parent as well, the only child of the next generation on our board. John was unique in other ways. As a child of an integrated family, he had a broader view than most, and his own intelligence, restless energy and passion for people drove him to challenge himself with a world of interest. Bruce Clark calls him a Renaissance man. Shortly after NYU Law School, John joined the NYPD. Imagine, the police department’s own Civil Libertarian in Residence! Pat says he always marched to a different drummer. Fellow NYCLU Board Member Don Shaffer says he was a “principled maverick.” John was a figure of authority who questioned authority – a free spirit in a cop’s uniform, though he mostly wore civilian clothes as a prosecutor of misbehaving officers. But he didn’t think it a paradox that he was at once a police officer and a libertarian. He could be a registered Democrat and at the same time, a member of the Libertarian Party, opposed to government control over individual behavior, opposed to the paternalism that says, “we know what’s good for you.” So he opposed the war on drugs, arguing that if drugs were legal, there would be no profit in them and therefore no crime; and he opposed laws against prostitution, laws penalizing gays, in fact, any kind of laws of personal prohibition. If this sounds radical, he could point to John Stuart Mill, who wrote 150 years ago in his essay, On Liberty, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” Because he had a broad view, John knew it was important to work with others and find ways to differ without betraying our principles. NYCLU Board Member Doris Shaffer, who often drove him back to his city apartment after board meetings, remembers that once she told him about her young grandson who balked at reciting the pledge of allegiance. John suggested that Alan might mumble something unintelligible under his breath that would allow him to keep his principles without offending others. A perfect solution. John was above all a “people person.” Unlike Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov who wanted to save the world but couldn’t bother with real people, John cared about individuals and their welfare. He had a million friends, from all around the world, no surprise when you realize that in college (Stony Brook) he sought out the foreign students dorm as his residence. He also spoke about a half dozen languages. It is not clear which came first, the foreign languages or the foreign students, but John could converse in French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, German and even Swedish, so he could speak to his maternal relatives. Not only did John travel all over visiting friends in Paris and Moscow, where he patrolled the streets wearing his NY State Guard uniform with his Russian friend Vladimir, but they came to stay with him. And stay they did; a night, a week, a month; they all had keys. Pat says he had a “bed and breakfast without a fee.” As if this weren’t enough, John loved acting. As a police officer, one of his jobs was to guard the scene when Hollywood came to NY to make movies. So John was an extra in about dozen movies and on the TV program Law & Order. He was very tall and handsome. Bruce Clark remembers that he had a cameo role in a movie with Keanu Reeves. Not only that, he enlisted his brother Joel and sister Janice so they became extras, too. He just loved to act. And he also loved to swim. Don’t we all. Except John swam as a challenge to his endurance. Pat says she’s glad she didn’t know at the time some of the things he did, like jumping over the fence around the Central Park reservoir and swimming across it. Or swimming across the Hudson. But one time she did know was when she trailed him in a boat while he tried to swim around Manhattan. He made about 20 of the 28 miles before she ordered him to stop because she could see he was going into shock. I understand he also tried parachuting. Nothing human was alien to him. So, is it any wonder that John would not hesitate to plunge into the heart of darkness when help was needed on that brutal morning 12 days ago? Even though he had every right to walk away, that is not the John we know. Last Sunday the Times asked its literary critics to comment on how art has dealt with grief. This from Richard Bernstein, on poetry:
“Many experiencing intense, even unbearable personal loss have found redemptive meaning in the famous poem of Ben Jonson wrote in 1603 on the death of his son, the one in which he declares, “My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.” There is no full consolation for a parent who loses a child, and indeed Jonson does not offer consolation. But at least he gives a form to what most of us only dimly understand: that the source of grief is the intensity of the hopes that have been lost, and that without the possibility of grief there would have been no joy.”
We mourn the loss of John Perry and all the hopes that were lost that fateful day in a pile of rubble. But we thank John for all of the joy he has brought into our lives.