By Cheril Vernon
Messenger Copy Editor
PALESTINE – For many years, newspaper columnist Owen Perry shared stories in his weekly column “Kaleidoscope” about “the good ol’ days” of growing up in the Great Depression; and of the people he met and rubbed elbows with while working as a songwriter and singer during country music’s heydays in the 1950s.
His column was printed weekly for several years in The Messenger, the Palestine Herald-Press and years ago in his hometown newspaper in Minden, La.
Many of the columns he wrote were about the people he met and worked with while performing on the “Louisiana Hayride.” A weekly show in Shreveport that spotlighted new singers and songwriters who later went on to become stars such as Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Jim Reeves, Buck Owens and others.
Perry, 94, passed away on July 6 in Sherman. During his younger years, Perry wrote Young’s first hit song titled “Tattle Tale Tears.” He also wrote songs for Pierce and former Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis.
But it wasn’t only his newspaper columns and music background that people came to know him by. Perry lived in Palestine for close to 15 years, serving as an associate minister at Crockett Road Church of Christ in Palestine. He moved away about 8 years ago to be closer to family members when his health began to fail.
“We brought Owen to Palestine as an associate minister. He was our hospital minister and nursing home minister. He devoted himself to that work and personal evangelism,” Crockett Road Church of Christ Minister Dan Manuel told The Messenger Thursday. “He also taught Bible classes and filled in for me when I was out of town for revivals and other events.”
Manuel met Perry while leading revival meetings in Ruston, Louisiana. For a few years, the Crockett Road Church of Christ sponsored Perry as a personal evangelist before bringing him to Palestine.
As a personal evangelist, Perry reached out to people who are not Christians on a one-on-one basis, leading them to Christianity and teaching them the Bible.
“We still have people today that are members of our church that he led to Christ,” Manuel said. “Owen did a lot of good while he was here. A lot of people still remember him with great fondness. He had a heart of gold. He would do anything for anyone. He was always humble.”
Perry was known for walking the halls of the local hospital asking if anyone needed prayer, while checking on members of his congregation.
“He would go into the hospital and would ask people if he could have prayer with them. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, young or old, Owen would do his best to help them,” Manuel said.
At one point, the hospital bought a book of Perry’s poems and had them in all of the hospital rooms, Manuel said.
“Over the course of the years, he would call people in our church directory every day and check on them. He would find out when their birthdays were and send them a personal birthday card. Even when he left he continued to make calls,” Manuel said. “He would call the church and see how his church family was doing, and if he heard someone was in the hospital, he would call on them to check on them.”
Manuel and Perry shared a love for the older country and western music, another aspect of their friendship that brought them closer together.
“The first time Owen came to see me, he brought his guitar and we did a little pickin’ and grinnin’. That was the first time he sung the song ‘The Last Lonely Mile’ to me. It’s since been published and used in the book of hymns that our church uses,” Manuel said. “We sang that song at his funeral in tribute to him, the last lonely mile.”
Both Manuel and Perry had performed on the Louisiana Hayride show, though at different times in their lives.
“He and I shared a lot of stories. He knew a lot of people that I knew, younger and older,” Manuel said.
Manuel was one of many of Perry’s friends who enjoyed hearing stories about his earlier days in the country music world.
“Owen met Don Williams and Marty Robbins, calling Marty one of the nicest people he ever met,” Manuel said. “Later in life he interviewed Cindy Walker, who wrote ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ for Elvis and ‘You don’t Know Me’. They had a lot of commonality between the two as songwriters, and it was one of the highlights of his life.”
Perry also appeared on the Dogwood Jamboree show in Palestine a few times, and became a regular attendee for the local shows.
He was inducted into the Country Music Writers Guild’s Hall of Fame for the tri-state area (Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana) in 1994. He was inducted into the Louisiana Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997.
Even though Perry moved away to Sherman, that didn’t stop him from checking in weekly with his Palestine church.
“He liked to stay current with the church. He said it was the church he loved the most. He wanted to be buried in Minden next to his wife, but he wanted to come home (to Palestine) for his service,” Manuel said. “He had it all mapped out. He picked out the music and even who would be his pallbearers, everything about his service.”
Perry was born in Dubach, La. in a one-room shack, according to Manuel, recalling the many stories his friend told him about growing up during The Great Depression.
“The times were tough. I loved to hear about his childhood and how they were able to survive,” Manuel said.
According to the many newspapers articles he wrote, his early childhood was spent on a red-clay hill farm. He attended a two-room school heated only by a cast iron pot-bellied stove. He recalled his family working “sun up ’til sundown for anywhere from 75 cents to a dollar a day.” One of his articles “My Bright-Red Christmas Dream” told the story of how he dreamed of getting a coaster wagon he saw in the Sears and Roebuck catalog. That Christmas, even though his parents struggled, his mother made a little extra cash from selling fresh milk and butter. He received “the prettiest red coaster wagon I’d ever seen” and his sisters each got a doll.
“God knows the sacrifices that were wrapped up in those gifts, but sometimes a kid’s dream does come true, doesn’t it? Mine did. And I shall never forget!” Perry wrote in the “My Bright-Red Christmas Dream” column.
Another article Perry penned told the story of how he met country singer Eddy Arnold at a hotel, and was able to listen to two of his new songs, including one that Perry told him would be a hit.
Former Palestine Herald-Press editorial assistant Sharon Duerer of Palestine typed Perry’s columns for more than a decade. Perry brought his articles to the Palestine newspaper office typed from a ribbon typewriter that he kept for years.
“He would share his younger days with me, his writings and his song-writing. He led an interesting life. He was a talented man and a Christian. He was a proficient writer. I always enjoyed typing his columns and reading his articles,” Duerer told The Messenger.
Palestine resident Gerri Schattel met Perry about 17-18 years ago.
“I met him when I joined Crockett Road Church of Christ. He and Sybil were so welcoming and sweet. I was a single mom and he called me up not too long after that and asked if me and my daughter would come over to have ice-cold watermelon with him and his wife. They were just so sweet,” Schattel told the Messenger Friday. “He never met a stranger. He loved everybody. He was a great person.”
Schattel remembers she and her daughters being the recipients of his phone calls to wish them a happy birthday through the years.
“He called everyone on their birthday like clockwork. Even if it was a little child, he would tell you to tell them that the Lord loves them so much, he was going to pray for them to have a good birthday,” Schattel said.
She also recalls a day when she was visiting a friend who was having a procedure done at the local hospital.
“I could hear Mr. Perry’s voice down the hall asking people if they had a pastor to pray with them, what kind of procedure they were having done — if they didn’t mind him asking, and would they mind if he prayed with them,” Schattel said. “He was going curtain to curtain praying with them.”
When her second daughter was born, Perry brought Schattel a small pink Bible for the baby.
“He wrote a little note inside telling me he didn’t think there was a better gift than to start this baby out right with the Bible. That has always stuck with me,” Schattel said. “He lived a life of loving people. He made you want to be a better person.”
Schattel, who serves as area manager and account executive at Encompass Home Health in Palestine, said Perry struck up a unique friendship with Encompass Home Health & Hospice CEO April Anthony of Dallas several years back.
“Owen was a patient of our home health agency. We are a large company with 232 locations in and around 28 states, but about 8 years ago, I was in Palestine for a ribbon-cutting and one of our nurses told me that he wanted to meet me,” Anthony said during a phone interview with The Messenger Friday.
That random meeting led to a friendship that has lasted for years, starting with Encompass Home Health sponsoring his newspaper columns, but it eventually led to more for Anthony and her family.
“For the last 8 years we have had a great relationship of caring for one another. He was almost a secondary grandfather to our kids. He was really a great guy full of life, full of stories,” Anthony said, sharing the memory of visiting him in the nursing home about six weeks ago, showing him YouTube™ videos of songs he wrote and sung, and songs from his friends from that time period.
“He couldn’t sing anymore due to his health, but his foot got to tapping. He thought it was fun looking up his friends’ songs on the computer,” Anthony said. “His mind was sharp until the very end. Unfortunately, his body gave up on him.”
Through the last eight years, Anthony and her family made a point to take Perry out to dinner or visit him in the nursing home.
Anthony said getting to know Perry has been something she has shared with her colleagues and team.
“This guy is a good example of our patients, who have lived a great life long before we meet them. Our primary role is to our patients. They are the Owen Perrys of the world. They are who we are caring for and the reason we are doing this work.”
Though he was known for many things, Perry’s love for his wife, Sybil, was at the top.
“He was a devoted husband and devoted family man. They were married for almost 70 years,” Manuel said.
In fact, when their son, Robert, was about 12 years old, the Perrys considered adopting a toddler.
“The little girl was about 2 or 3 years old, but she had four brothers. They didn’t feel like it was right to break up the family, so they adopted all of them,” Manuel said.
Perry left an indelible mark on those who heard his music, those he met through his ministry or those who were fortunate enough to know him personally.
Perry said it best with his own words in his song “That Last, Lonely Mile”: “When they looked down and saw my need, God and Jesus both agreed, that He’d come down and walk that last lonely mile.”