Local author shares empathy and family history

At Friday’s annual post-Thanksgiving gifts bazaar, Mary Haakenson Perry sat among the local merchants and craftspeople in Kenai’s Challenger Learning Center. Her table held copies of the three books she’s published — inspired by two generations of her family’s homesteading history and by her empathy for the developmentally disabled.

The cover of Perry’s first book — published in 2004, shortly before her 2006 retirement as a special education teacher at Homer’s Paul Banks Elementary — has a painting of a boy marching into the woods with a red flag held aloft. The boy is Jim, the eldest of Perry’s five brothers, who was born with the developmental disorder Down syndrome. The book’s title — “Onward, Crispy Shoulders!” — seems strange to those unfamiliar with the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers,” which Perry said Jim loved to sing, though during their homesteading childhood at Anchor Point in the 1950s, he often misunderstood the title.

The first hint of Jim’s difference, Perry said, came when his parents overheard doctors discussing whether to classify the three-year-old boy as a cretin or a mongoloid.

“They (Jim’s parents) went home and looked it up in the dictionary, and that’s the way they found out,” she said. “There wasn’t much teaching to doctors and medical staff about how to break that kind of news to parents.”

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder in which an extra chromosome causes intellectual disability and flattened facial features. “Mongoloid” and “cretin” are obsolete terms for mental disability, now considered offensive. The treatment options of the day were as limited as the terminology, Perry said.

“The way they were advised to handle it was to put him in an institution and forget it,” Perry said. “If you chose like my parents did to keep him at home and raise him, you were on your own.”

Though Jim spent one year in California at a special school, Perry said that when he came home “my mom felt she could teach him as much as he was learning there — he was learning manners and dressing skills and the kinds of things she was teaching him already. He learned to count and his alphabet, and that was about it.”

What she most remembered about her brother was his work ethic.

“We had a cow, and he was in charge of the milking and taking care of her,” Perry said. “Until he got his job at the school, the cow was the most important thing in his life. Then when he got the job at the school, he felt like the school wouldn’t run right if he wasn’t there.”

Jim was an assistant janitor at Anchor Point’s Chapman Elementary school for about 25 years, living at the homestead and riding the bus down to school, Perry said. He worked there until he began experiencing Alzheimer’s disease around the age of 50, and has since died.

“When my brother was failing in his health, I got to thinking about the great stories we had about him, and thought they might be helpful to people coming behind us who had a child with Down syndrome — they might be inspiring or encouraging,” Perry said. “So I decided to write the stories down… I always loved to write, but I never really considered being a writer until I wrote this book. And I enjoyed it, so I wrote two more.”

Before his life inspired her first book, Jim inspired Perry’s career.

“That was the main reason I wanted to go into special ed — because I thought it was so unfair that he never got to go to school,” she said.

Had Jim grown up later, he may have had that chance.

“It was a changing profession,” Perry said of special education. “When I was going to college, most kids with special needs were still in special schools. By the time I started teaching three years later we were at least in the school with the other kids, and then by the end of my career, integration became more and more accepted and expected as more parents got to be advocates. Parent groups started, advocacy groups my parents knew nothing about.”

Perry’s second book, “Something to Be Thankful For,” is about her mother Esther, who as a child came with her family to Alaska from Minnesota in 1935 as one of the colonists, escaping the Great Depression, who founded an experiment agricultural community in the Matanuska Valley. Though Perry departed from family history to try fiction with her third book, “The Mystery of Cheechako Island,” she returned to her focus on helping readers understand those with DOWN syndrome. The story is a young adult mystery staring 11 year old Sunny Turner, a girl with DOWN syndrome.

“As the story unfolds, you see what the little girl can do,” she said. “At the end, because it’s a book for young people, I put some things you might want to know about DOWN syndrome, addressing some of the questions directly.”

Parents of her former students have read and enjoyed her books, Perry said, especially the one about Jim.

“Some of them knew him as a child, and seeing it from the inside out, they enjoyed it,” she said. “A lot of people appreciated his story because they can really relate to it… His response to the world — they can see that in their child too, to some degree.”

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com

More in News

Drummers perform during a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai, Alaska, on Friday, July 12, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenaitze tribe celebrates 10 years of ‘far-fetched dream’ at wellness center

Community members recognized the work done at the Dena’ina Wellness Center over the past decade

The Kenai Safeway is seen on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai and Soldotna Safeways may be sold under proposed Kroger-Albertsons merger

The local stores will be sold to CS Wholesale Grocers only if the merger overcomes suit from the FTC

Sockeye salmon caught in a set gillnet are dragged up onto the beach at a test site for selective harvest setnet gear in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Draft plan published for disbursement of $11.5 million in 2021 and 2022 ESSN disasters

Public comment will be accepted for the draft spend plan until July 24

The Kasilof River is seen from the Kasilof River Recreation Area, July 30, 2019, in Kasilof, Alaska. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)
King salmon fishing closed on Kasilof starting Monday

The emergency order is being issued to protect returning king salmon, citing weak returns

Soldotna City Hall is seen on Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Soldotna’s city council appropriates funds for FY 2025 capital projects

Improvements are described for streets, police facility, Soldotna Creek Park and Soldotna Community Memorial Park

Gina Plank processes sockeye salmon caught on the first day of Kenai River dipnetting with her table set up on the bank of the Kenai River in Kenai, Alaska, on Wednesday, July 10, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai River open for dipnetting

As of Tuesday, a total of 226,000 sockeye had been counted in the Kenai River’s late run

Assembly Vice President Tyson Cox speaks during a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in Soldotna, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Assembly won’t pursue further discussion on tabled bed tax resolution

Members say they’re going to work on a new version of the idea this winter

Gov. Mike Dunleavy pictured with members of the House majority after signing the fiscal year 2025 budget bills, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Anchorage, Alaska. From left to right: Reps. Stanley Wright, Tom McKay, Thomas Baker, Craig Johnson, Kevin McCabe, Julie Coulombe and Laddie Shaw. (Photo provided by Office of the Governor)
Dunleavy signs capital budget with $3.7M in state funding for Kenai Peninsula, vetoes $3.3M

Roughly $90 million in federal funding also allocated to Kenai Peninsula

Alaska State Troopers logo.
Soldotna man arrested Friday after 30-minute police chase

The man had an outstanding warrant for felony probation violation

Most Read