Mary Perry, 88; fitness advocate encouraged seniors to remain active
By Steve Morse Globe Correspondent October 28, 2013
A devoted fitness pioneer, Mary Perry taught physical education and coached sports in Hopedale for 25 years, then embarked on
a national career as an aerobics instructor, filling classes with joyous optimism well into her 70s and inspiring many older
participants with her tireless energy.
“Age to her was a state of mind,” said her daughter, Anne of New London, N.H. “And she always looked younger than her age.”
During the keynote address at a fitness conference in Wisconsin in 1987, Mrs. Perry declared: “Older people can do more than
they’re given credit for, and they don’t like to be talked down to.”
Mrs. Perry, who in later years also traveled extensively, died in her sleep of congestive heart failure Oct. 3 in Woodcrest Village in
New London, N.H. She was 88.
“She was ahead of her time,” said her son, Joe of Duxbury, the lead guitarist in the band Aerosmith. “She would spread the
message that you could stay active when you got older. And she was also a free thinker. She’d talk about Stephen Hawking and
read all these books about quantum physics. She was knowledgeable about a lot of subjects.”
When Mrs. Perry retired from her teaching in Hopedale, she moved to Sedona, Ariz., where she lived for nearly 20 years. Her
aerobics career flourished there before she returned to New England to teach aerobics at the Mountainside Racquet and Fitness
Center in New London until she was in her mid-70s.
Julie Morse, one of her later students, said Mrs. Perry would joke: “If I die in class, then just step over me.”
A first-generation American of Italian descent, Mrs. Perry was born Mary Ursillo in Lawrence and married Anthony Perry of Lowell
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Sargent College in Boston and received a master’s in physical education from
Her teaching career began in the Manchester, N.H., school system before she switched to Hopedale, where she also coached a
variety of sports. Her 1966 field hockey team went undefeated.
“She was always patient and kind and devoted to her students,” said Lynda Sessa, who graduated in 1978 from Hopedale High
School. “I learned so much from her and to this day exercise is a big part of my life.”
After Mrs. Perry’s husband died in 1975, she spent time at the family’s home at Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire, and then felt
the need to travel.
Her son Joe stepped in and bought her a Mercedes-Benz.
“I surprised her with it one afternoon,” he said. “I pointed to the car and said, ‘This is yours.’ She put 280,000 miles on it.”
Mrs. Perry ended up in Sedona and became associated with Dance Slimnastics, a company that later was called The Fitness
Firm, which made exercise videos. She taught classes for the company and made three videos of her own under the name the
Mary Perry Project, which she adapted from her son’s side band, the Joe Perry Project.
With her dog, Lady, she drove to campgrounds across the country to sell DVDs and encourage campers to exercise.
“My life has been improved 100 percent since I started aerobics,” she said in American Adventure magazine in 1988. “Whether
joining a fitness program, golfing, swimming, or just taking a brisk walk every day, regular exercise is an essential part of healthy
living and being.”
Mrs. Perry had a “gypsy soul,” said her daughter, who lived with her for a while in Sedona while studying to become a therapeutic
bodyworker, and now has a practice in New London.
Mrs. Perry also went to Florida to swim with dolphins and took a trip to Alaska. She taught fitness on a cruise ship with Royal
Caribbean Cruises from San Juan to Lisbon in 1988. After turning 80, she wanted to go to Antarctica, but her children suggested
she reconsider, given the challenges of such a trip.
In 1996, because she wanted to be close to her family, Mrs. Perry returned to New England.
She began teaching aerobics in New London before handing off her classes to instructors Heidi Leighton and Shelby Blunt, but
she continued to attend classes often and stood in the back for moral support.
In addition to her daughter and son, Mrs. Perry leaves four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Family and friends plan to hold a celebration of her life, which will be announced.
Mrs. Perry’s son said he was particularly indebted to her because she helped pay some of the rent on Aerosmith’s communal
apartment on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue, where the band first lived.
“She’d also send me $10 a week so I’d at least be able to get one good meal a week,” he recalled.
Thanks to Kathi Wright for this version and Ann Fields for the paper copy.
her family. Mary was born in Lawrence, Ma on Sept 30 1925 , the daughter of Louis and Anna (Feole) Ursillo. She was married to
Anthony D Perry of Lowell, Ma in 1948. She graduated from Sargent College at BU and later received her masters in Physical
Education at Springfield College. Her first teaching job was in the Manchester NH school system after which she moved to
Hopedale Ma, to take on the position of head of the physical education department. There, as part of the teaching staff she was
responsible for shaping the healthy lives of hundreds of students thru her more than 25 years of teaching everything from square
dancing to tossing the cage ball. Mrs. Perry was responsible for curriculum classes as well as coaching girls varsity and Jr
varsity sports teams and taught not only skill on the field but, respect and the importance of teamwork. When her husband Tony
passed in the mid 70's , she took early retirement to travel and start life anew spending some time at the family's house on Lake
Sunapee before heading west .Mary decided to sell the property on Birch Point (Lake Sunapee) where as a family they had
enjoyed cozy winter nights after skiing the mountain and long summer evenings after a day on the lake. On her travels and
throughout her life, Mary met people easily and stayed in contact with many of them as her life progressed. She eventually found
Sedona AZ and enticed by the beauty of nature and a stellar golf course decided to relocate there. She became involved with the
growing aerobics craze in the 80's and started a program there in association with The Fitness Firm- a national movement
franchise. Her class grew in popularity and had a devoted core of participants who for years after her leaving still got together to
socialize, exercise and support one another thru life's challenges. She spent many years in Sedona, walking among the Red
Rocks with her devoted 4-legged companion Lady, an incredibly friendly and energetic black lab. In 1995, Mary decided she
wanted to move back to New England to be closer to her family and her roots. She found a spot in New London on Cricenti Lane.
Shortly after settling in, she began a similar exercise program at Mountainside Racquet club. She was in her 70's by this time
and being of the mind that age is just a number, introduced a new kind of aerobics program to the community and within a short
time had created the space for a new network of friends many who to this day still jump around several mornings a week. Her
commitment was to make exercise fun and enjoyable by making sure everyone was included and holding the space for living
"outside the box". In her son's words, "in many ways she was ahead of her time as far as her way of thinking and living, whether it
be exploring books on quantum physics or women's rights." When her beloved Lady ran her last run, Billie gifted Winston, her
adorable white fluffball to Mary so she wouldn't have to raise a new puppy for a constant companion. She will be remembered for
lots of reasons but those who knew her will remember the thrill and pride she had being able to see her son's concerts from the
side stage or soundboard, a devoted fan for 40 + years! Mary was extremely proud as well of her daughter's skill in the healing
arts .She was very proud of the achievements of her four grandsons and to be sure, of how they have grown to be sensitive men.
Mary loved animals, and seeing new places, doing some travel with Elderhostel. She loved to read, and rarely had an unkind
word for anyone, looking to see the best in everyone. She loved a good card game especially if there was some wager involved
and had a lot of fun during football season! She would be the first one to suggest a party or get together and was mentor and
friend to so many throughout her life. It was because of who she was and how she led her life that at her time of passing so
many friends and caregivers surrounded her. She leaves behind her son, Joe Perry and his wife, Billie Paulette Perry of Duxbury,
MA; her daughter, Anne Perry of New London, NH; four grandsons, Aaron Hirsch of Duxbury, MA, Adrian Perry and his wife Anne of
Brooklyn, NY, Anthony Perry Jr and Roman Perry of Duxbury, MA Also two great grandchildren, Austin Hirsch and Genevieve Perry.
She requested a celebration of life, which will be announced at a later date.