Susan Emily Risheill Perry, a lifelong Alexandria resident whom friends and family knew as Sue, was a child of the 20th century. She died June 6 in the handsome, two-story townhouse on Columbus Street her father built in 1910. On the same block, 75 yards away, was the rowhouse she was born in a hundred years ago.
The Alexandria centenarian was a living repository of local history, her vivid memories a valuable resource for historians, genealogists and preservationists.
Memories of her beloved city ranged back to the days when a cobblestoned Columbus Street echoed to the sound of horses' hooves and carriage wheels. Those memories encompassed modern times, when bargain hunters heading to Ross's Dress for Less scurried along the timeworn red-brick sidewalks in front of her house.
Mrs. Perry's maternal grandfather, Thomas Van Buren Risheill, owned a lumber mill and from 1871 to 1885 was an alderman representing the city's third ward.
Her paternal grandfather, J.R.N. Curtin, owned Alexandria Iron Works at Wilkes and Royal streets, where the Old Town Safeway is. He, too, was involved in local politics, serving as president of the board of aldermen from 1896 to 1910. A short time later, her father operated a lumber mill on the same site as the ironworks.
The Alexandria of Perry's youth was a small town where, as she recalled in interviews and oral histories over the years, "you'd walk down King Street and you knew everybody -- everybody would speak."
She recalled accompanying her mother on Saturday mornings to the farmers market at King and Royal streets. Farmers brought ducks, chickens, eggs and, at hog-killing time, fresh pork. At Christmas, fresh-cut trees went for a dollar.
She recalled being with her father and occasionally dropping into Edgar Warfield's drugstore on the northwest corner of King and Pitt streets, and how Warfield, Alexandria's last surviving Confederate soldier, would whip up a chocolate soda for her.
She knew all the early-20th century businesses along King Street, from the ferry wharf on the Potomac to Shutter's Hill on the west. She knew the families, knew who married whom. Her only son, Frank "Bim" Perry III, a retired Fairfax County judge, recalled the time not long ago when T. Michael Miller, a research historian with the Office of Historic Alexandria, showed her a picture of her second-grade class. She knew the names of nearly every child in the picture.
Perry graduated from the old Alexandria High School and went to Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg. After graduating, she taught for a year at Alexandria Academy, the city's oldest school. She was a third-grade teacher during the 1924-25 school year, but it was not a happy experience. Her class of 40 pupils included several late-blooming boys, 12 and 13 years old, who occasionally brought pistol bullets to school and delighted in tossing them into the fireplaces and wood stoves of the old building.
"It was too hard to control all those children when I was so inexperienced," Perry told a reporter for the Old Town Crier in 1999. She learned typing and shorthand and found a job as a secretary with C&P Telephone Co. in Alexandria. It was easier on the nerves.
Perry also was a singer. "Alexandria's Kate Smith," as she was known, was a frequent soloist at the city's Downtown Baptist Church and performed in church choirs, clubs and operatic ensembles in the city. She liked to say she was the first person to sing live on the radio in Northern Virginia, on the station WJSV.
In 1931, she married Frank Perry Jr., a railroad man from Orange, Va. He played the violin, and the couple often duetted at various public venues. He died in 1990.
Short and stout all her life, as well as outgoing and optimistic, Perry could be a formidable woman, particularly when she believed that modern-day Alexandria wasn't properly attentive to its venerable past. When she was 96, she took it upon herself to make sure that the valuable reference collection at Alexandria's Barrett Library on Queen Street -- the city's first public library -- stayed there instead of moving to the new central library. In 1937, she had known Mr. Barrett, who built the library in honor of his mother, a physician.
She protested to the Alexandria City Council and, afterward, was quoted in the Old Town Crier as saying, "They're going to do what they want to do anyway. That's politics, but at least I made the effort."
That effort was to no avail, though some years earlier, she and two friends were successful in preserving one of Alexandria's most historic churches. In 1952, when the city's First Baptist Church outgrew its century-old building on South Washington Street, Perry and two friends, Charlotte Henderson and Augusta Taylor, began a campaign to ensure that the building was preserved as a church.
They obtained a loan from the Baptist Board in Richmond, borrowed folding chairs from a funeral home and helped midwife Alexandria's Downtown Baptist Church. The congregation thrives today, 50 years after its founding.
"If it hadn't been for Sue Perry, they would have razed the most significant piece of Romanesque architecture in Alexandria," Miller said. "That property would have been an ugly parking lot."
At a memorial service, Miller spoke for many Alexandrians when he described his old friend, who died of a stroke, as "a real treasure."
He added: "When you lose somebody like her, it's like losing a whole encyclopedia of Alexandria's history."