WESTERLY — When Harvey C. Perry II takes his leave from the Washington Trust Company on Oct. 18, it will end a business-employee relationship that his family has had with the bank since 1804. It was then that Thomas Perry, who was born on Dec. 7, 1776, in Charlestown, left his position as a schoolteacher and moved to Westerly to become the second cashier of what was then called The Washington Bank.
Since then, multiple generations of Perry’s family have worked at the bank, which bills itself as the nation’s oldest. It is a lengthy family tradition that is not likely to be matched.
“Harvey has made a number of significant contributions to the bank during his career,” said Joseph J. MarcAurele, the bank’s chairman, president and CEO. “His tremendous sense of community and steadfast commitment to the bank’s heritage and culture has contributed to Washington Trust’s success.”
If one does not recognize Perry, 64, from his nearly 40-year career at the bank, it is likely that he is more familiar as the president of the Westerly Land Trust. He has served as president of that organization for the past 13 years. The trust was “once in a coma,” according to Perry, before it blossomed with its first purchase — the 50-acre Avondale Farm Preserve in 1998. Since then the land trust has purchased about 1,500 acres and has helped neighboring land trusts with the preservation of another 875.
“It’s like building a snowball,” he said. “You keep rolling it and at first it looks like nothing is happening, until you look down and see how big it has gotten.”
Perry started at the bank when he was 16 years old in 1965. He worked for three consecutive summers. After earning a degree at Haverford College in Lower Merion, Pa., he took a full-time job with the bank in its wealth management division. He left that post 10 years ago.
He currently serves as senior vice president and director of the office of nonprofit resources. In this capacity he has helped nonprofit organizations throughout the state achieve their missions. Now, with his leaving, the office will be dissolved.
“It’s going away,” he said.
Banks are having a hard time growing earnings, he added. “Maybe it will come back some day. Now the bank is in cost-control mode.”
He said he would miss working at the bank — “the relationships, the style of doing business when it is consistent with what I believe is the bank’s culture, the opportunity to work with the bank CEO, to benefit the value and earnings.”
“I had a lot of opportunities to offer ideas, brainstorm,” he added. “I am glad to have had the opportunity. It’s all in other people’s hands now. I find it hard to believe that I won’t be there.”
He said he was most proud of his work in the bank’s wealth management division.
“I was very proud, grateful, to be working with a group of people that really laid the foundation and growth of the wealth management division,” he said. “We all made it happen. A lot of people had pride in their work, of helping people and doing things correctly. I was proud to be a part of that group.”
Perry said the division now controls nearly $4.5 billion in assets, and while it varies with the market, it is a reliable stream of revenue for the bank.
“It is attractive to shareholders and serves our customers well with a genuine and caring service,” he says. “To the extent that I contributed to that culture, I am very pleased.”
For now, Perry said that he would stay engaged with the land trust, working on land acquisitions. It is an organization that he has been involved with since its inception in 1987. The success of the land trust has attracted numerous volunteers like the CCC or Coffee Cleaning Club. It is a group that maintains the trust’s many miles of trails.
He said his family’s history has had a tremendous effect on his career. That began when his seven-time great grandfather, a Quaker, came to Rhode Island in 1703. At the time it was a crime to be a Quaker in Massachusetts. Later, in the mid-1800s, his great, great, great-grandfather Charles Perry brought Frederick Douglass to Westerly to speak against slavery. Perry was an ardent abolitionist. He was also the bank’s chief executive and a farmer. “He took a lot of social criticism for having a person of color in his home,” Perry said.
His family has been a part of the fabric of the town and its history ever since.
“I don’t know where one gets a sense of stewardship,” he says. “It might be part of you. I’ve developed a strong sense of stewardship — stewardship of family, places and the Washington Trust.”
His family donated the land that The Westerly Hospital now occupies. It was once part of a 250-acre tract that ran from the Pawcatuck River on Margin Street, up to the hospital and State Street School.
Perry still resides on Margin Street, and one of the homes next door is owned by his cousins. At one point, he said, it was like a Perry compound.
Perry led the 2005 expansion of the land trust’s mission to include urban revitalization in support of the “smart growth” of the town, and has served on the board of trustees of the Rhode Island Chapter of the Nature Conservancy since 1995. He also serves on the board of directors of the Nopes Island Conservation Association and as a commissioner on the Quonochontaug Beach Conservation Commission (Nopes Island is in Quonochontaug Pond).
“You have to be absolutely persistent,” he says about his land trust work. “Each one of the acquisitions failed at least once. You just have to get back up and say, ‘How can I get this done.’”
“I’m going to stay involved as long as I can. I really enjoy it. I know it’s an old saw, but you really get more out of it than you give. This is good stuff. What would you rather do, play golf every day, watch TV? It’s not a sacrifice.”
Perry and his wife, Sarah, have two children, and it is apparent they inherited their father’s love of the land rather than a love of banking.
Their son Ethan, 44, lives in Duluth, Minn., and works as a scientist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Ethan’s wife is a scientist with the Nature Conservancy for North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.
The Perrys’ daughter, Laura, 40, lives in Fort Collins, Colo. She is a research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey and her husband works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.