Peter Perry of Fergus was a remarkable teacher

Few historians would argue with the statement that David Boyle was the most remarkable of Wellington County’s teach­ers. His innovative teaching inspired dozens of students to pursue useful car­eers, and his research ad­vanced geology and archaeology in Ontario.
There are other notable teach­ers in the county’s his­tory. Near the top is Peter Perry, who spent most of his career at the Fergus High School.
Perry’s early years contrast sharply with Boyle’s, who be­gan his working life as a blacksmith, with a bare minimum of formal education. Born in Whit­by in 1855, Perry attended Trinity College School in Port Hope, operated by the Anglican Church, and Dr. Cassie’s fam­ous private school, in Galt. His parents placed a high value on a good education. That meant he was destined for University. In the 1870s he earned a BA degree from Trinity College, and an MA from the University of Toronto. His first teaching as­sign­ment was at his alma mater, Trinity College School. By coincidence, one of his students was Reginald Fessenden, the in­ventor of AM radio, who had ties with Fergus: he lived there when his father was min­ister at St. James Church.
From Port Hope, Perry went to Brockville High School in the 1880s. In 1891, the Fergus School Board hired him to be principal. Perry’s education was a typical 19th century one, with a heavy emphasis on the clas­sics. It is not surprising that his teaching subjects reflected that background. He taught Latin, classical Greek, French, anci­ent history, and English litera­ture and composition.
During his teaching years, Latin was a required course, which caused most students to roll their eyes. Perry was able to inject life into the language. It was his fav­ourite subject, and his students actually looked forward to his classes, something rare for students of Latin. Those who went on to uni­versity especially appre­ci­ated the thorough grounding he gave them in the language.
Greek was always the least popular high school subject, and it passed from the curri­culum during Perry’s time as Fergus principal. Not so for Eng­lish composition. He em­phasized that subject as the most important one. He taught his students to write clearly, ac­curately, and elegantly. Many benefitted from the extra ad­vice and encourage­ment after class. His enthusi­asm was con­ta­gious, and he always managed to bring something out of an old piece of Latin or English lit­erature that was relevant to the lives and futures of his stud­ents.
As with all good teachers, Perry’s influence on his stud­ents extended beyond the mat­erial that would be on the final examination. As a principal, he was not one of the old-fash­ioned type, ruling the school with an iron fist and countless rules. Perry believed that his students were gentlemen and ladies, and he expected them to act that way at all times. His method worked: he never had any discipline problems in his school, and students strove not to disappoint the expectations he had of them.
Unlike many of the teachers of his day, Peter Perry had a lively sense of humour, and he was not afraid to show it in class. Learning should be fun, not a chore, he insisted. His nat­ural sense of curiosity about the world around him rubbed off on dozens of students. In­variably cheerful and in good humour, he helped dispel the feel­ing that a school was necessarily a gloomy and un­pleas­ant place to be. 
Perry’s presence in the larg­er community was as important as it was in the classroom. He served as a member of many organizations over the years, often as secretary. Among his major interests were the Oddfellows Order, the Fergus Library Board, and the Agri­cultural Society. He was parti­cu­larly active in the Masonic order, serving as secretary of Mercer Lodge for many years. Though an outspoken supporter of the Conservative Party, Perry never considered partici­pat­ing actively in politics, though there is little doubt he could have been elected. 
One of his interests was music, and he enjoyed playing the violin. Perry was largely re­sponsible for organizing the Fergus Orchestra, and acting as its director and conductor.
Perry’s chief interests were in the areas of languages and arts, in contrast to David Boyle, who was fascinated by scienti­fic subjects. But neither man was a victim of what a later writer would call “the two solitudes.” Boyle had a literary side, and Perry kept up with the rapid pace of scientific discov­ery and advance that paralleled his own life. Boyle had a liter­ary side and loved music.
Perry, in retirement in the 1920s, became obsessed with radio, constructing his own re­ceivers and listening, with ear­phones clamped to his head, late into the night.
One of the highlights of his later life was an 18-month around-the-world vacation in the early 1920s. He wrote a memorable travelogue of the trip, which included a lengthy stay with a daughter who was then living in the Philippines.
Perry’s personal life had its share of sorrow. He was mar­ried twice, and widowed twice. He had two daughters and two sons by his first wife. One son died young in 1908; the other was killed in military action in 1917. He married his second wife, Jean Munro, of Fergus, in 1903. She died in 1917. They had one son, Arthur Perry, who moved to Toronto as an adult.
Peter Perry’s students ap­pre­ciated him most in their ad­ult years, when they reflected on the influence he had made on their lives and careers. He made a point of following their later lives with interest, and was always available to give advice and encouragement. When the new Fergus high school opened in 1928, a group of his students pooled together to commission a portrait of him, to hang in the auditorium.
Ill health plagued Perry in the last decade of his life. He suffered from arthritis, and later from what appeared to be cancer. In his last months, he could no longer care for him­self and was in constant pain, as his body shrunk to a mere shell. Friends moved him to the Elliot Home, in Guelph, where he died on Feb. 22, 1931.
Mourners packed St. James Church in Fergus for the fun­eral. Floral tributes filled the front of the building. Mourners included dozens of former stud­ents, many of whom tra­velled a considerable distance to be there. Mercer Lodge con­ducted the burial ceremony in Belsyde cemetery. They reflec­t­ed not only on his formal teaching, but on the values he conveyed to them: courtesy to all, gentlemanly behaviour, a continuing curiosity about the world, and the duty to be a solid contributor to the commu­nity.
One of Peter Perry’s most notable pupils was Hugh Templin, the celebrated editor of the Fergus News Record. Perry captivated the young Temp­lin with his lessons in history and composition. Later he encouraged Templin’s stud­ies at university. When the younger man returned to Fer­gus to take the helm of the paper, he and Perry became friends, and in the 1920s they shared interests in conservation and experimenting with rad­io.
Had it not been for Peter Perry, Hugh Templin might well have taken other career paths.
His teaching and exam­ple influenced the editor through his whole life. Templin honoured his old teacher by naming one of his sons Peter.

Stephen Thorning