But with Astrophysicist Peter Perry, You, Too, Can Tour the Heavens
by Valerie Lester
“As a child, I broke my father’s eyeglasses to make a telescope,” announces the astrophysicist. “And I didn’t get punished.”
Peter Perry’s parents knew they were incubating an astronomer, and they encouraged his fascination with the stars. The boy’s favorite pastime was a trip to the Hayden planetarium with his father, and Perry suspects that his interest in classical music, movies and food were born there, too. “While you waited for the film show to be projected on the dome, they played classical music. And when we left the planetarium, we always bought delicious roasted chestnuts from the vendor on the corner.”
Astronomy, film making, music and food: These are the enduring strands that run through Peter Perry’s life.
“Am I going to turn into a vegetable?” Perry demanded of his wife Helen on his retirement. He hasn’t, for Perry as in all his life’s years has a mission. Before retiring, his mission was rocket science.
Now it’s making movies to bring the heavens down to earth.
On Anne Arundel Community Television, Channel 99, Perry introduces each month’s stars, as seen from the northern hemisphere. After half an hour of Know Your Sky, with Astronomer Dr. Peter M. Perry, you’ll know your Big Dipper from your Little Dipper and be launched on your own voyage of discovery.
Peter Perry’s monthly programs about the mystery of the skies begin at the family home in Harwood.
When I walked into the Perry dacha it is impossible to call their icon-filled home a house he whisked me upstairs to watch the first film in his astronomy series. We stretched back in comfortable loungers and sailed off to the stars. Perry taught, and I learned as we journeyed around the autumn sky. Accompanying us were eight trumpet tracks electronically layered for the program by Perry’s musician son, Peter Perry Junior.
Path to the Stars
Peter Perry always wanted to teach people about the stars. He grew up in New York City, where bright lights dimmed his view of the heavens but did nothing to dull his ambition. “There were still things you could see,” he says. “The moon, the Orion nebula. And of course, there was always the planetarium.” During the summer, when the family went on vacation in the Catskills, the boy studied his constellations. With his first camera, he shot Sputnik, and his picture was published in his high school newspaper.
From high school, he aimed for his goal and earned his B.A. in physics at the City University of New York, M.A. at Adelphi University and Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. At Adelphi, he earned enough money teaching physics and math and doing some planetarium work to get married.
Together, the Perrys have made a delicious stew of their lives, adding ingredients as the years go by. They are both of Russian descent but met in the U.S. (Perry’s parents changed their name to Perry from Perepletchekov, which means bookbinder, on arrival in New York.) Helen Zekulin was born in Prague, spent much of her childhood in Iran and grew up speaking Czech, Russian, English and Farsi. They married while Peter was in graduate school.
After their first son was born, the Perrys would take him to the observatory. “He would sleep there, and so would Helen, while I observed,” Perry recalls. “They came along because Helen was afraid that when I drove home at night I would have so many stars in my eyes that I would drive off the road.”
The job market was thin and the pay thinner when Perry got his Ph.D. in the early 1970s, so he took an offer of work at Computer Sciences Corporation in Greenbelt “for a few months” until he figured out how to return to teaching. The company, under contract to NASA, was putting together the first international ultra-violet satellite, for which Perry became the resident astronomer. He and Helen moved to Maryland and settled in their dacha on 33 acres of woodland on the banks of the Patuxent River.
Computer Sciences Corporation was forward-thinking, and encouraged Perry (working under NASA’s Dr. Albert Boggess) to hire the brightest young scientists he could find, luring them with the promise of time for independent research. “That made it easy for me to attract talented people,” says Perry, who subsequently became the manager of the group, a job he refers to as “shepherding a flock of cats.” Months stretched to years.
The team worked for two decades on the UV satellite, which they had envisioned taking two years to complete. Perry picked up another project along the way, the Hubble Space Telescope. He retired after 20 years with Computer Sciences Corporation.
Back to the Path Not Taken
Did Perry put on his slippers and sit on his porch? Did he buy Bermudas and fly south to stroll along a Florida beach in his sunset years? Certainly not. At retirement, the 64-year-old was already involved in local politics: chairman of the Davidsonville civic association, chairman of the South County coalition, and chairman of the forestry board (a position he still holds).
Inevitably, friends and admirers persuaded him to run for county council. He lost. “I am not sorry that we ran,” he says of his 2002 campaign. “We lost because we didn’t have anything to lose by doing it on our own terms; I was not going to let the monied and the lobbyists prevail. We put our hearts into it and we filmed all our campaign ads ourselves.”
Making their own campaign ads was the Perrys’ first step toward becoming professional film makers. “We had done tons and tons and tons of it in an amateur way when our sons, Peter and George, were growing up,” says Helen. “They were both musical, and were always performing,” Unwittingly, the Perrys were setting themselves up for a new career.
Losing the election freed Perry to concentrate on his own backyard, where he found another opportunity for film making. He worked night and day on the property; he cleared brush and fallen trees; he built a barn; he cut firewood; he milled boards on his sawmill. For two years he labored, all the while reflecting on the subject close at hand: the Patuxent River Greenway.
As Perry’s loss in the Democratic primary closed the door to the county council, it opened the door to making films for television. Ed Riley, who won the council seat Perry coveted, had his own idea: Storytime on Anne Arundel County Television. And he had just the person in mind: Charlotte Smutko, a member of the storytelling group Voices of the Glen. But he needed a filmmaker. Charlotte remembered Perry’s campaign ads.
“That’s where we really started,” says Helen. “But rather than work at the station, we invited Charlotte to our house, and we filmed her in a rocking chair in front of the fireplace. The first story was Tom Tit Tot, who is an ugly little thing with a long tail. I had the perfect puppet for the story, and I made a green screen with a hole in it that I could work him through.”
Tom Tit Tot was such a success that Anne Arundel County Television has since aired 13 of the storytime shows.
Peter Perry is fascinated by the technology of film making and has invested in three cameras, his own editing equipment and the various props of the filmmaker’s art, such as green screens, which provide a background that can be removed by computer and replaced with, say, an image of the night sky.
Next to the family kitchen, his editing room hums with digital-age-21st century. Gradually, the enduring strands of Peter Perry’s life have pulled together again: teaching, the stars, classical music and food, as delicious smells waft from Helen’s kitchen. He works the strands together in Know Your Sky, with Astronomer Dr. Peter M. Perry.
Helen Perry, too, has found her mission. As well as helping Peter with camera, sets and ideas, she has launched a project of her own: a cookbook with the working title, Elmhurst Park: An American Dacha. It includes a collection of recipes from her international background, descriptions of religious festivals and feasts and family stories that bind the whole thing together.
Instead of retiring, the Perrys are creating lasting works for pleasure and education and they are are having a ball.
AACTV (Channel 99) presents “Know your Sky” every Wednesday at 8:30pm and (for insomniacs and truly crazy would-be astronomers) at 3:30am on Fridays and Saturdays.
About the Author
Valerie Lester is the author of two books, Fasten Your Seat Belts! History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin and Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. Her last story for Bay Weekly was the reflection “New Life in the Old Country” on August 4 (Vol xiii. No. 31). She reflects from Annapolis Roads.