Two years ago today, during the lockdown, a longtime presence at F&W, Marion “Perkie” Harris, passed away at the age of 83 from a stroke.
Those who knew her will remember her beaming charm and the infinite energy she brought to counseling, Work Weekends, and her Family Camp directorship (’77–’89). The classic Perkie look was waist-length hair braided down to a point and pushed off her forehead with a bandanna—and a big smile rising above her teeth.
She first came to Camp at 17 as a “junior” counsellor, after giving into the urging of her brother, David Perkins, who was already a camper. She was hooked immediately. This was not camp as she had known it, where children were put through their paces and kept under tight discipline. This was a community, a place of hard work and skill-building, of music and dance, and of kindness and an appreciation of nature.
Between her time as a full-time counsellor (’53–’60) and her stint as Family Camp director, she maintained her camp ties as a core member of the Friends of Farm and Wilderness alumni group and a guest science counsellor at Indian Brook, where she set up shop in Aquaview for a few weeks a summer with a weather station and her deep knowledge of the natural world. She also served as a Trustee in the late 70s, early 80s.
As a Family Camp director, she was charismatic and welcoming, taking the time to understand each new family’s goals. Were they looking for community? Were they testing the waters with a kid nearing camp age? Did they simply want to spent time together? She targeted her meticulous programming and personal attention accordingly.
A born teacher (and a professional during the school year), she
was always instructing. If you wanted to learn a song, she demonstrated the rise and fall of its pitches with a hand in the air, fingers bent like a pointer. If nature was all just an undifferentiated wall of green to you, she took you for a fern walk and shared her tricks for identifying different species. If you couldn’t triangulate your location on a map, she gave you a quick primer. Chopping wood? She modeled the safest stance and insisted on work boots. Knots? This is how you tie a bowline (“the rabbit comes out of the hole…”). Parenting trouble? This is how you set a firm limit.
Perkie’s mealtime announcements could be protracted, as everyone, young and old, was encouraged to report on their activities. No encounter with nature was too minor to delight her (an eft! A moth! Even a leaf); no newly acquired skill or effort of teamwork unworthy of notice.
She often led the song at grace or a rounds sing in the evenings. Her exuberance at a square dance was irrepressible. She of course showed newbies what to do and could lead a waltz as well as she could follow. If the pianist or base player was tired, she took a turn. At the end of the night, she dropped the needle on the classic circle dance Miserlou and called it (“Grapevine left, grapevine right”) for the few remaining dancers as tireless as she was.
In silent meeting, she spoke often on a favorite theme: how to take the kindness and community-building energy of F&W back out into the world.
Old age hit her young. In her early 60s, she suffered a couple of strokes, after which she didn’t feel sharp enough to keep up the easy flow of instruction, and she retired. Her body too—her perennial ally in dance and wood chopping—had become a little slow to respond. She accepted her new limits with grace. She still sang, still kept an eye out for the curiosities of nature, and remained connected to the F&W community she so loved.