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Farewell to Century of Alexandria History

Family, friends remember Sue Perry.

Since 1990, the double urn has sat waiting, one side empty, in the parlor where they were married more than 70 years ago. Now, both sides are full and Frank and Sue Perry are together once again.

Susan Emily Risheill "Sue" Perry died on July 18, just over one month after her 100th birthday. She died in the home where she had lived since 1910 — just down the block from the house where she was born. Neighbors and friends came to that home to remember her.

Alexandria city historian Michael Miller delivered one of the eulogies. "From her birth in 1904 to her death six days ago in 2004, Mrs. Perry witnessed an era of incredible change both technologically, politically and in the social realm," he said. "She regaled us with stories of a bye-gone era when one could hear the clatter of horses' hooves on a cobble-stoned Columbus Street and yet she could also appreciate the Apollo mission when Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon.

"As we say our final good-byes, Susan Perry will forever be remembered as a fun-loving, outgoing, happy and, vivacious lady whose knowledge of Alexandria of yore will forever enrich the fabric of the present generation."

PERRY WAS THE DAUGHTER of Marcus Lawrence and Mamie Curtin Risheill. Her father, who was born in Alexandria in 1875, owned a lumber mill on the corner of Wilkes and Columbus streets. Her mother's family owned a foundry that was located on the southeast corner of Royal and Wilkes streets.

"That's probably how my grandparents met," said Frank Perry, III "Bim", Sue Perry's only child. "Both families were involved in the construction business."

Sue Perry was born on June 6, 1904, and grew up on Columbus Street. She attended first grade at the Arlington Institute, elementary school at the Lee School, and graduated from Alexandria High School in 1922. After graduation, she attended Mary Washington College.

"She came home to Alexandria from college and began a career as a teacher at the Alexandria Academy," her son said. "She had a group of boys that were pretty bad, from the stories she told. One day, they put a bunch of bullets in the stove and they exploded. She only put up with those types of antics for a year and then decided to change careers."

She met her husband, Frank Perry Jr. in 1924. "My grandmother rented rooms in their house to earn extra money and my father came from Orange, Va., with the Southern Railroad Company and rented a room."

The couple had a great deal in common, especially their love of music. She sang and he played the violin, among other instruments. They performed duets at various functions throughout Alexandria until the 1970s.

According to Miller, Sue Perry was often referred to as "Alexandria's Kate Smith." Her son wasn't aware of that but does remember a home filled with music.

"I don't remember many nights that I didn't fall asleep to my father's violin," he said. "My mother told me that she was the first person to sing on radio in Northern Virginia in the 1920s."

SUE PERRY HELD various jobs but is most remembered for her civic involvement. "She knew the Barrett family and was very protective of the library on Queen Street," Bim said. "One summer before the library was built, she was a playground monitor on that site. There's a picture of her with the children at the playground which appeared in the Washington Post in 1923."

She was also very involved as a member of the Downtown Baptist Church. In the 1950s, First Baptist Church moved from Washington Street to its current location on King Street. The old church was left without a congregation or a pastor. Sue Perry and two friends were determined to save the church.

"They felt that the downtown area should not be left without a Baptist church," Bim said.

The women first began holding church services in the Odd Fellows Hall across the street from the church. "They would borrow folding chairs from Demaine Funeral Home on Saturday night and would set them up for Sunday service," Bim said. They were finally able to purchase the church buildings and save them from becoming a parking lot.

After her husband's death, Sue Perry's own health began to deteriorate. By 1995, she was using a walker and by the late '90s, was in a wheelchair. "She loved sitting on her porch and talking to the people as they left Christ Church on Sunday mornings," said Pat Braun, a neighbor.

She also stayed involved in local affairs. In 1999, at age 95, she appeared before the Alexandria City Council to express her concern about the city's decision to move many books from the Barrett Library to the new Charles Beatley Library.

"She was very upset that they made the main library the new library," Bim said. "She saw the building and thought it was horrible."

Until shortly before her death, she continued to receive visitors and talk to old friends on the telephone. "We had full-time nursing care for her so that she could stay at home," Bim said. "That's where my father died and that's where she wanted to be."

She died at 4:30 a.m. on July 18. "My wife and I were with her because something told me I should stay that night," Bim said. "She opened her eyes just before she died and looked at me. Then she was gone."

The Perrys will be buried at St. Paul's Cemetery.