Former U.S. Ambassador Jack Perry was a career diplomat who spent more than two decades on the front lines of the Cold War from Paris to Moscow, Sofia to Stockholm.
But he’ll be remembered as much for what he did after leaving the Foreign Service, when he became a community ambassador who brought a global sensibility to Davidson College and Charlotte.
Perry, 83, died Sunday.
“He was always a voice of reason,” said former Davidson College President John Kuykendall. “He could take a position without being objectionable. A perfect diplomat. That’s what he was born to be.”
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Perry, an unassuming man with a white beard and ready smile, became part of a vanguard of Charlotte-area internationalists. With people such as Queens College President Billy Wireman and Harold Josephson, a founder of the World Affairs Council, he helped open the city to the world.
“He more than many others saw a need for a public educated about world affairs,” said Ed Williams, who as the Observer’s editorial page editor ran Perry’s columns for years. “We were a big old parochial city. They really brought the view that we were part of a larger world and it was important that we understand that.”
For Perry, it all started in 1956 when, after stints in the Army and as a newspaper reporter in his native Georgia, he began graduate studies at the Russian Institute of Columbia University. Three years later he joined the Foreign Service.
From Europe to Davidson
In a Foreign Service career that would last until 1983, he took a variety of posts in Washington and Europe. He served at U.S. embassies in Moscow, Paris, Prague, Stockholm and at NATO headquarters. In 1979 he became ambassador to Bulgaria.
Shortly after Kuykendall arrived at Davidson in 1984, he hired Perry to run the college’s fledgling international studies venture, named for another Georgian diplomat, former Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
“When I came, the Dean Rusk program was a name, an aspiration,” Kuykendall said. “But we needed somebody to lead it.”
Perry put his stamp on the program, which had been started by Kuykendall’s predecessor, Sam Spencer.
“Sam Spencer’s intention was to take (Davidson) from a regional school to a school with a national reputation and a school globally engaged,” said Chris Alexander, current director of the Rusk program.
“The program by its name and by its existence really announced to students and the broader Charlotte community … that an international education is a fundamental part of a liberal arts education.”
Perry ran the program until 1995. Over that time, the percentage of Davidson students who received some kind of international experience rose dramatically. According to Alexander, more than 80 percent of students travel or study abroad during their four years.
A diplomat at home
Perry, who also taught at Davidson, sought to deepen the community’s understanding of foreign affairs through his newspaper columns. The professional diplomat never lost faith in diplomacy.
“Some in Washington divide the world into good people and evil people, but diplomats and historians, taking a long view, see the picture as mixed,” he wrote in 2001. “If after our Afghan war we list all the regimes we consider evil, and go after them as ‘terrorists,’ it will surely be a world full of wars.”
In September 2002, months before the invasion of Iraq, he advised caution.
“Iraq is not a military threat to the United States,” he wrote. “It is a terrorist threat only potentially, along with scores of other sources of terrorism. Yet the war-wishers are busy painting us into a corner. Soon we may be seen as weak and retreating if we do not carry out our threat to wage war in order to change Iraq’s government.”
“I think he had seen enough good intentions go bad that he was very cautious, particularly with the use of force in foreign affairs,” said Williams.
Perry is survived by his wife, Betsy, four children and eight grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at Davidson College Presbyterian Church, 100 N. Main St.
According to his family, he wrote this after turning 80:
“I had a three-time blessed life. I was given a wonderful human being as my wife, with all the good things that come from marvelous children and a happy family. I was given a diplomatic career which took me to fascinations around the world. …
“And I was given the great gift of teaching a decade at a superb college with inspiring students. I am one fortunate man.”