A little more than 100 years ago, Monday, June 12, 1922, the body of G.W.C. Perry, longtime managing editor of the Gazette, lay in a coffin surrounded by flowers in the parlor room at his residence at 202 Caldwell Street.
Well-wishers crowded the room and spilled out the front door onto the sidewalk and overflowed the street in both directions. All morning long a constant stream of friends from every walk of life and every corner of the state passed by the coffin to pay their respects to the much-loved and admired Chillicothian.
President Warren G. Harding, owner of the Marion Daily Star, knew Perry well from his newspaper days and rushed a telegram from the White House to the Gazette offices expressing his condolences.
“I am greatly distressed to hear the news of the death of our good friend G.W.C. Perry”, the president wrote. “Please convey to the family an expression of sincerest condolence for both Mrs. Harding and me. He was a useful citizen and a most loyal friend. WARREN G. HARDING.”
Harding was unable to travel to Chillicothe to pay his respects, but Ohio Gov. Harry L. Davis and a handful of state officials did and were present in the parlor room that morning. The governor, impressed by the outpouring of love and affection for Perry, issued his own statement.
“It is granted to but few people to go out of this life leaving behind them as profound a feeling of personal love among those that knew him as is true with Commodore Perry. He was loved and admired by all for his kindly, big-hearted understanding and deep sincerity.”
George Washington Commodore Perry (everyone called him Commodore) was born on Nov. 19, 1859, in Jackson County, Ohio. He was related to the famous Perry family naval dynasty, including Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the hero of the War of 1812 who famously defeated British naval forces in the Battle of Lake Erie. The naval legend’s older brother, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, was considered the “Father of the Steam Navy,” and played a major role in opening Japan to trade with the West.
Unlike his famous seafaring relatives, though, G.W.C. Perry remained landlocked in Ohio his entire life. He was the youngest of 11 children and spent his childhood on the family farm just outside Jackson. Incredibly, when he was only 13 he took the examination to become a teacher and passed.
For the next 18 years, the first 12 in Jackson, and then six in Ross County, Perry taught school, including five years at the Higby school in Franklin Township. He found a home in Ross County.
For some reason, in 1892, at the age of 32, Perry abruptly changed careers after he received an offer to join the Gazette as a bookkeeper and collector. He had been a country schoolteacher for nearly two decades and his move to the city caused much comment about his physical appearance.
He “had two flowing whiskers extending from his temples down below his jaw,” one of his best friends remembered, “with the chin left bare and a mustache bridging the space between whiskers across the upper lip.” It was his signature look in these days.
Commodore Perry may have looked like a simple country teacher, but in a few short years he was managing the business affairs of the paper and in 1908 acquired half of the stock of The Gazette Company and acted as managing editor until his death.
Although skilled in financial matters and politically savvy, Perry left the writing to others, including his best friend, E.S. Wenis. “Mr. Perry was first of all a politician,” Wenis recalled years after his friend’s death, “and secondly a newspaper manager, to be used as a medium to forward his political prestige. “
The Gazette was a Republican newspaper and Perry was rewarded for his political patronage with a series of political jobs. In 1904, for example, he was appointed postmaster of the city. He served in that position for nearly a decade, beginning in 1904, and ending in 1913, after Woodrow Wilson’s Democratic Party swept into office and he was ousted.
Perry was exceedingly proud of his years as postmaster. Almost immediately, he called in political favors and was awarded $80,000 to construct a new post office building. The building still stands on the corner of Paint and 5th streets, now occupied by The Postmark, Chillicothe’s premier wedding and event venue. The historic building is also home to Prohibition, a 1920’s style cocktail bar.
Surprisingly, before Perry assumed the postmaster job, residents did not have private mailboxes. Mail carriers knocked on doors and rang doorbells and if no one answered they would try again the next day. Perry appealed to residents to erect private mailboxes at their homes. “Carriers can cover much more territory,” he argued, “if not compelled to wait for an answer to their ring of the doorbell.”
Although Perry served in several other government jobs in his lifetime and was superintendent of pardons and paroles when he passed, he was especially proud of his time at the post office.
During these years, Perry was a sort of Forrest Gump-like character, seemingly at every gathering in Chillicothe, delivering speeches and often acting as master of ceremonies. Although he could play hardball politics, he also had plenty of friends in the other party and apparently had the perfect personality to put people at ease and make them laugh.
It is one of the reasons the turnout was so large that morning on Caldwell Street. He was a kind.
Perry would have been proud that his political friends, fellow newspaper editors from every section of the state, and countless friends in Chillicothe dropped by his home to pay their respects, but he would have been thrilled by something else.
One of the reasons flowers overflowed the parlor room was because of his love of children. Perry was a big supporter of the Welfare House and the children picked flowers themselves and placed them near the casket. The newspaper editor would have especially appreciated the tribute, coming from the kids whose lives were so important to him.
Equally moving were the roses the newsboys delivered to Caldwell Street. The Gazette recorded what was perhaps the greatest eulogy to Perry.
“These little mourners, each one whom he knew and was interested in, went to the residence to take a last look at one whom all looked upon as a real friend, ever ready to put his arms about them to protect, to comfort and to help them.”
One hundred years ago, Chillicothe lost one of its greatest citizens. He is buried in Grandview Cemetery.