Peter Perry a memorable principal of Fergus High School

During the 19th century many of the schools of Wellington County attracted notable teachers.

Leading the list, of course, is David Boyle, who acquired his own formal education while a young adult and then taught locally, first at the Middlebrook School in Pilkington, and then as principal of the Elora Public School in the 1870s.

He later took the helm of the Provincial Museum, now the Royal Ontario Museum.

Another outstanding educator was Peter Perry, long associated with the Fergus High School. Perry was not a local man. He was born in Whitby in 1855. His father, John Ham Perry, placed a high value on education.

He enrolled young Peter at the Trinity Preparatory School in Port Hope, and later at the famous grammar school at Galt operated by Dr. Tassie. That school, in its day, turned out many of Canada’s political and business leaders. Perry stayed on there for a couple of years as a teacher after he graduated.

Later Peter Perry went on to the University of Toronto, where he earned BA and MA degrees. He then returned to Port Hope, joining the staff of his alma mater. One of his students there was Reginald Fessenden, the inventor of AM radio.

From there Perry went to another teaching position in Brockville and after a brief stint there he joined the staff of the Fergus High School in 1891 as its principal.

With the exception of a four-year span on the teaching staff of the Waterdown High School, he spent the rest of his career at the Fergus school, until poor health forced his retirement in 1919.

As a teacher he was a master of many subjects, in particular Latin and Greek, which were then central to the high school curriculum. He was also an expert in ancient history and chemistry, and he taught other subjects as well from time to time.

To his students he was also a trusted counsellor. In later life many of his former students looked back on the advice he had given them in deciding on career choices and dealing with life. He placed a great deal of emphasis on fair play and consideration of others. He constantly told his students to “always play cricket” as they passed through life.  

While on the staff of the Port Hope High School he married Jennie Gillespie of that town. She died early in life, but produced a family of four. Perry married for a second time in 1903, to Jean Ramsay. They had one son. Jean died in 1917.

The children dispersed widely, none remaining in Perry’s adopted home town of Fergus.

Daughter Muriel married Tom Thilgris of Buffalo, and Edna married Ernest Heybroek and lived for a time in Manila in the Philippine Islands. Son Percy died in 1907, and Rex perished in action in France during the First World War. The youngest son, Arthur, lived and worked in Toronto.

In 1921, suffering from ailing health, Perry decided to join his daughter Edna in Manila. He stayed there for two years, and returned to Fergus much improved in health.

In retirement, with his health improved, he spent a half dozen years as an enthusiastic volunteer and community activist. He was an Anglican and devoted considerable energy to St. James Church, serving for a time as a church warden.

While he was teaching in Fergus Peter Perry joined the two leading fraternal groups in the town, the Masonic Order, in which he rose to District Deputy Grand Master, and the International Order of Oddfellows, of which he was secretary for many years. He was also a dedicated worker for the agricultural society.

Perry did all he could to promote a knowledgeable and well-read public. He joined the library when it was still the Mechanics Institute, supported by membership fees.

He was a vocal advocate of a public library, supported by tax money, and he became secretary of the Fergus Library Board when the town took it over, holding that position for more than a quarter century. He took an active roll in selecting books to add to the collection and in determining to which periodicals the library would subscribe.

In politics Perry was a staunch Conservative. He served as a member of the Centre Wellington Riding Association, but never considered standing himself for elected office either at the local or senior levels. In his younger days he was an enthusiastic and skilled cricketer before the game of cricket fell out of fashion locally.

Perry was a competent player of several musical instruments, particularly the violin, and in the 1890s he took part in concerts put on by various local groups.

Peter Perry was delighted when construction started on the new Fergus high school, which opened in 1929. During his teaching career in Fergus the facilities had always been inadequate and cramped. When he came to Fergus the school had but two teachers.

Before the old school closed, Peter Perry was invited back to teach the last lesson in the building.

Though retired for a decade, he still had his old form, despite his failing health. Dozens of former students packed the school to hear him give his last lessons in Latin and French literature.

At the opening ceremonies of the new school Perry was a special guest. He was deeply touched when a group of his old pupils presented him with a portrait of himself, which occupied a place of honour at the front entrance of the new school building.

Perry’s health continued to deteriorate during the late 1920s, and he had to cut back on some, and then all, of his community activities. Nevertheless, he continued to be one of the best known and best liked residents of Fergus, with a big smile and friendly greeting for all he met.

Eventually, in 1930, his health failed to the point were he was no longer able to look after himself. He went to Guelph, and passed his final days at the Elliott Home. He died there, peacefully in his sleep, on Feb. 22, 1931. He was 75 years old.  

During his teaching years he gave his students a thorough grounding in Latin and English literature and composition that served them well, especially those who went on to university. Perry taught Greek as long as it was on the high school curriculum and French.

But most of all, he instilled in his students a sense of honour. He would be visibly disappointed when their behaviour did not meet the standards of mature and responsible adults.

Peter Perry’s funeral took place on Feb. 24, 1931. There was a brief ceremony at his former home, “Woodside.”

That was followed by a service at the old St. James Church on Breadalbane Street. The church overflowed with mourners and former students. A huge mound of flowers filled the front of the church, most sent by former students who were unable to attend the funeral. Rev. W.G. Luxton, assisted by Rev. A.O. McDonald, conducted service.

The Masonic Lodge conducted a service at the grave. Masonic brothers from Kitchener, Guelph, Galt and Elora attended.

It was a final salute to the best liked man in Fergus.


Stephen Thorning