A. Michael Perry

A. Michael Perry

Meet the Huntington Icon who has dedicated his life to the city and the state he loves so deeply

By Jack Houvouras

Photos by Rick Lee

Delos W. Emmons, C. Lloyd Ritter, Charles W. Cammack, James Holderby, Col. Harvey Long, Stella Fuller, J.L. Caldwell, Carter G. Woodson, Stewart H. Smith. These are just some of the esteemed citizens who helped build the city of Huntington. Their names now grace parks, schools, buildings and local charities. They are all Huntington icons whose contributions to the region are part of local history. Following that lineage of leadership is A. Michael Perry, a modern-day Huntington icon.

Mike Perry, as friends know him, has played a pivotal role in nearly every progressive stride Huntington has made in the last 30 years. Whether it’s been economic development, education, health care or culture, Perry has been a driving force. A born leader, his career has seen several incarnations. He began as a highly respected attorney; from there he went into banking when he agreed to run The First Huntington National Bank which, under his stewardship, grew to become the largest holding company in the state; in later years he built a museum of history literally timber by timber and stone by stone. Along the way he even served as president of Marshall University.

The impetus behind Perry’s numerous contributions to the region can be traced back to his childhood when, at an early age, he realized Huntington was a very special place.

“What’s always driven me is the realization that home is fantastic,” Perry recalls. “I grew up in an era when children played in the neighborhood. You could walk to the drug store, to the grocery store or to the filling station, and everybody knew you. The neighborhood was the heartbeat of the community. It was a wonderful time. But as I grew older, more and more of my friends were forced to leave Huntington to find work, and that troubled me. I made a decision early on that I wanted to make sure every child in this community had the same great opportunity that I had – the opportunity to make a life in Huntington.”

He was born Audy Michael Perry on May 31, 1936, at St. Mary’s Hospital. His mother, the former Virginia Cole, quit school in the 8th grade to help raise her brother after her mother died in childbirth. A voracious reader who worked at Owens-Illinois, she devoted her life to Mike, his brother Rory and her husband. His father was Austin Lee Perry, known to everyone as Audy. He worked at the International Nickel Company and went on to become an entrepreneur, dabbling in a variety of ventures including a termite business, insulating, bottle capping and real estate. Perry credits much of his success to his parents.

“I had a loving mother; there was never a shadow of a doubt that she loved me,” Perry says. “My father never laid a hand on me. If I misbehaved he’d simply tell me, ‘Son, I am very disappointed.’ I would have rather had five spankings than to have disappointed my father, whom I adored.”

When Perry was 8 years old, he came home from school one day and announced that he thought he was ready to start smoking. Instead of overreacting to the news, Perry recalls that his father simply outsmarted him.

“My father said, ‘That’s wonderful, son. I think you are, too.’ Then he walked me down to the drug store and helped me pick out a brand of cigarettes and a big black cigar. Of course after a few puffs I became ill. I’ve never smoked a day in my life since.”

Perry doesn’t drink either, but not necessarily because of moral or religious convictions. Once again, it traces back to the wisdom of his father.

“On occasion my father would take me down to the county jail to drive some friends home who liked to tie one on every weekend. I saw the tragic consequences of excessive drinking at an early age.”

At Miller Elementary and Monroe Elementary, Perry was a good student, but at least one of his teachers thought he wasn’t reaching his potential. So, one afternoon she sent him home with a report card filled with question marks. Perplexed by the grades, Perry’s mother took him back to school to see the teacher.

“As we were walking to school, I told my mom, ‘I’m sure Mrs. Overstreet has gone home by now.’ She smiled and said, ‘Somehow I don’t think so, Michael.’ Of course Mrs. Overstreet was waiting there for us; she told my mom that while my grades weren’t bad, they could certainly be better. The two of them had a long chat about how I could be encouraged at home to study and achieve more. It was a wonderful example of a caring mother and a dedicated teacher who wanted to make a difference in the lives of her students.”

A. Michael Perry

It was in the 5th grade that Perry came home from school one afternoon and informed his mother that he had met a girl who was just perfect for him. “I’m going to marry her someday,” he announced. Henriella Mylar was her name. And though they would eventually drift apart, there remained an attraction that would one day resurface. Perry went on to excel at West Junior High and Huntington High School before enrolling at Marshall University. In doing so, he became the first member of his family to go to college.

“The most important thing in the world to my parents was for their children to have an education, and they sacrificed tremendously for us. I was fortunate to be surrounded by dedicated teachers who loved to teach. There were so many people in my life committed to the American concept that each generation should help the next do even better.”

In college, Perry began dating Henriella. When he graduated in 1958, he fulfilled his prophecy from 11 years earlier when he married the girl he had said was “just perfect for me.”

After graduating magna cum laude from Marshall in 1958, Perry’s father pulled him aside and gave him some advice. He was proud of his son but encouraged him to continue on with his education.

“Someday, your college degree may not be worth more than my high school degree,” he told his son. “You need one of those other things.”

“It was obviously one of the most significant decisions I ever made,” Perry says.

He and his new wife moved to Morgantown and rented a basement apartment that was so small they had to move the furniture in the living area to make room for a hide-a-bed. The bathroom was across the hall. Perry tackled the rigors of law school while Henriella continued her studies at WVU.

“I was just miserable after the first semester,” Perry recalls. “I thought I hadn’t done well on my exams. We went home for Christmas but it wasn’t a happy time.”

With the holidays over, the couple started back for Morgantown, but along the way Perry’s insecurities about his exams got the better of him.

“I wasn’t even sure if I had done well enough to be invited back to law school.” He stopped the car at the halfway point between Huntington and Morgantown and called the school to ask for his grades. Perry was stunned when the woman on the phone informed him he had finished first in his class – a ranking he would retain the next five semesters.

As the top student in the 1961 law class at WVU, Perry was the recipient of numerous enticing offers, some from as far away as Florida. But, for reasons of his own, he opted to go another route.

A. Michael Perry

“Somewhere along the way, I realized the importance of where you want to raise children. I didn’t have to go away very long to appreciate how much we have going for us right here in Huntington.”

He ultimately chose to work for Huntington’s oldest law firm – today known as Huddleston Bolen. After being hired he sat down with the senior partners to address some issues that they perceived as potential problems.

“I told them, ‘I’ll work night and day for you, but Henriella and I don’t socialize very much. We’re very private.’ They were concerned that it would be difficult for me to be a successful lawyer if I didn’t socialize and play the game. They were also worried about the fact that I didn’t drink. But to their credit they never forced the issue, and we had a strong working relationship.”

Perry soon distinguished himself as a bright and highly respected attorney in Huntington. He was regarded for his expertise in corporate, tax and banking law. He and Henriella moved to a comfortable home on the South Side and started a family. They would have three children – Michele, Melanie and Audy. They joined and became active in the Beverly Hills Baptist Church. Their life in Huntington seemed idyllic, but that would soon change.

In 1973, Mike and Henriella Perry made a decision that would forever alter their lives when they sold their comfortable Southside home and moved to a farmhouse in the country. But, this wasn’t the kind of house you would expect for a successful attorney. Situated on 150 acres in rural Wayne County, it was a small, dilapidated log building damaged by a recent fire. It had one strand of electric lights, no heat and no indoor plumbing. Many of his neighbors and law partners thought he had lost his mind. At the time the Perrys’ children were 12, 10 and 2 years old, and despite the condition of the home the couple thought it would be an ideal environment to raise a family.

Over the course of several years, the entire family worked to remodel the old structure. They began growing food and raising livestock, and there were always numerous pets roaming the property. Years later, that experience of carving out a new life for his family in a rural hollow would plant a seed in Perry’s mind that would lead to the formation of a museum of Appalachian history.

A. Michael Perry

Moving to the country wasn’t the only major shift in Perry’s life. Around this time he became involved in a legal matter that would ultimately result in a career change. While representing The First Huntington National Bank, he crossed paths with an ambitious entrepreneur named Marshall Reynolds. Reynolds, the owner of Chapman Printing, had purchased some equipment from the bank in a foreclosure sale, and it was Perry’s responsibility to draw up the contract. After the deal was finalized, Reynolds called Perry and insinuated that he had made the contract too favorable for the bank.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Perry responded.

“Oh, bull,” Reynolds countered. “All I’m trying to do is pay you a compliment. Would you do as good a job for me as you did for the bank?”

From that phone conversation a special relationship was born. Reynolds was looking for someone sharp to assist him in business deals, and the two were an ideal match. As a lawyer, Perry was conservative and defensive. Reynolds, on the other hand, was an entrepreneur whose natural inclination was to take risks.

“I’ve always felt Marshall and I made an awfully good team,” Perry says. “He’s the best offensive player that I’ve ever encountered. Looking back, I would have to say that was as good a business relationship as I’ve ever had. Marshall is the kind of person who wants to share his success with others. I respect that in him.”

Shortly after they started working together, Reynolds began buying huge blocks of stock in The First Huntington National Bank. In time he became the bank’s majority stockholder and then asked Perry to take over as its chairman.

“I was very reluctant to leave the legal profession,” Perry said. “I was a lawyer, not a banker. It took me a while to go along with Marshall and other board members on this decision.”

In 1981, Perry took over as chairman and went to work with a small group of bankers overhauling the state’s antiquated laws by lobbying the legislature for reforms that led to branch banking, multibank holding companies, interstate banking and automated teller machines. With a new set of rules intact, The First Huntington National Bank began a phenomenal ascent. Under the new holding name of Key Centurion Bancshares, it acquired 21 banks across the region and saw its assets grow from $200 million in 1982 to $3 billion in less than 10 years. At its peak, Key Centurion had 2,000 employees, 400 of whom worked in Huntington.

“The role of banking is extremely important to the growth and development of a community,” Perry explains. “It helps people start a business, build a house and educate their children. When we started Key Centurion there were only two banks in West Virginia that could loan $2 million to anyone, and neither one was in Huntington. That’s not a good way to create prosperity and economic development.”

“I’ve never been motivated by money. We were losing our young people because there weren’t enough quality jobs in Huntington. We were educating these bright students and then seeing them move to Charlotte, Columbus or elsewhere to find work. Something had to be done to stem the tide, and I resolved to do my part.”

Perry’s vision for how to reverse that trend was through job creation, including the recruitment of companies to the Huntington region.

“Nobody is going to bring a company here unless we have at least five things – a good education system, top-notch medical facilities, recreational opportunities, cultural amenities and a solid infrastructure. I began focusing on those five areas.”

In addition, Perry reached out beyond Huntington to build a consensus among leaders in the Tri-State and Charleston. To that end, he worked with Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Congressman Nick J. Rahall, governors and mayors.

Over the last 30 years Huntington has made significant strides. Dozens of new state-of-the-art schools have been built. Marshall University has seen tremendous growth in such areas as medicine, forensic science, biotechnology and engineering. Dramatic expansion at Huntington’s two major hospitals has transformed health care in the region. And infrastructure improvements have been seen along roads, rivers, railroads and airports.

“I was fortunate to be surrounded by loving, concerned people who wanted to make a difference in my life and the lives of others. Therefore, it’s only natural that I would want to make a difference in someone else’s life. I want to make sure that children get a good education and have a good job. And like me, I want them to have the opportunity to stay in Huntington.”

Following a 20-year career in banking that saw him transform a small bank into a powerful statewide conglomerate, Perry turned his focus to new horizons. When his alma mater needed his help he answered the call and served as Marshall’s interim president in 1999. He counts his time at the university as one of the most exciting chapters in his career.

“You’re looking at the only undefeated president in Marshall history,” he likes to tell people. “Under my watch we won 13 football games and finished the season ranked 10th in the nation. And before I stepped down the basketball team won 10 straight games. Of course I had nothing to do with it, but you better take credit for things you had nothing to do with because you’re certainly going to get blamed for things you had nothing to do with.”

While Perry likes to joke about his role in the school’s successful run in sports, he took his duties seriously and worked hard with other officials to perpetuate the university’s growth and expansion. When he stepped down at the beginning of 2000, the state Board of Trustees voted to remove the word “interim” from his title – an honor he describes as one of the proudest of his life.

A. Michael Perry

It was during this time that he began to focus on a lifelong dream – building a museum of history on his Wayne County farm. He had been entertaining the idea ever since he and Henriella moved the family there in the early 1970s. The hardships they encountered fixing up their rundown home gave him a new appreciation for Appalachia’s early settlers. In the mid-1980s the couple began collecting relics from the past – wooden tools, primitive washing machines, clever inventions – and storing them in a barn on their property. What began as a small museum that they shared with family and friends soon morphed into a mission. They began buying old log cabins and buildings, tearing them down and reassembling them on their property. Each year more buildings and exhibits were added. Eventually they gave a name to their endeavor – Heritage Farm Museum & Village.

Today, there are 30 buildings on the old Perry farm. They include museums on heritage, progress, transportation and industry. There’s a country store, blacksmith shop, sawmill, pottery kiln, one-room schoolhouse, chapel, petting zoo, children’s hands-on museum and more.

“Our mission is multifaceted,” Perry explains. “We want to show schoolchildren and other visitors why we should be immensely proud of our Appalachian heritage. These remarkable men and women came over the mountains with barely anything more than their two hands and built their own homes, raised their own food and made their own clothes. They were ingenious, creative, industrious people, and their story has really never been told. We believe a lot can be learned from them.”

Perry points out that there was another major impetus for his decision to build the museum, and that was his concern for today’s children.

“I was speaking to a class of 4th graders one day about careers, and I asked them what they wanted to do when they grew up. I called on one boy who told me he wanted to ‘draw.’ I asked him if he wanted to be an artist or an architect or an engineer. He looked at me at said, ‘No, I want to draw checks like my dad and granddad.’ So, our young people are threatened with this entitlement mentality, and we need to remind them that it wasn’t always this way. There is dignity in work. I want people to know the satisfaction of having a job and being independent. Look at our ancestors. They were isolated and had to be independent. To me, that’s why we say ‘Mountaineers are always free.’”

Heritage Farm also features five bed-and-breakfast inns, most of which are modernized log cabins, and is a favorite stop for out-of-town guests looking for a charming place to stay in the country. The property also includes a chapel for weddings and two large halls for receptions, banquets and meetings. As such, it’s one of the region’s most sought-after venues for weddings and family reunions.

Today, the enterprise is operated by the Heritage Farm Foundation, a 501(c) nonprofit organization.

“Unfortunately, I get too much credit, but there would be no Heritage Farm without Henriella,” Perry asserts. “She has worked hard, made sacrifices and lent her ideas to this endeavor. There is no aspect of the museum and farm that she hasn’t been integrally involved with.”

Ask Mike Perry what’s most important in his life and he will tell you the answer lies in four simple things – faith, family, friends and farm. It’s what he likes to call “The Four Fs.”

“The most important aspect of my life is my faith. I’ve never believed that I was some cosmic accident created by things colliding in space. Instead, I believe fervently in a Heavenly Father who loves us all very much. He designed us with a plan and a purpose – that he wants us to love him and love each other. One day I’m going to be held accountable for what I’ve done with what I’ve been given.”

The Perrys have been members of the Beverly Hills Baptist Church and now the New Baptist Church for 50 years. In that time he has served in the music ministry, taught Sunday school classes and mentored countless young people.

Next to his faith, family is the most important thing in his life. He and Henriella have been married for 54 years and have three children and eight grandchildren. But the center of his life remains the girl he fell for in the 5th grade.

A. Michael Perry

“Other than your relationship with God, there is no decision more important than who you choose to marry. I was blessed beyond measure to find my life partner at a very early age. Henriella was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I chased her until I finally caught her. I’m blessed to have married the love of my life.”

Perry explains that he admires an array of qualities about his wife.

“She’s extremely humble. She cares about other people, not just her family. She loves her animals, and I think people who love animals are a special breed. We’ve adopted every animal you can imagine. It’s a good year when our vet bills exceed our doctor bills. It’s wonderful when you love someone madly and they love you madly back. I can’t imagine anybody being more blessed and fortunate than I have been.”

When you examine the life and career of A. Michael Perry, you will see a common thread that weaves through everything he has done – giving back. It’s his way of repaying debts to the people and community that helped shape his life.

“A major portion of my life has been dedicated to trying to regain the economic vibrancy that we had in my youth. It haunts me to see people who want to stay here, or people who want to come back, but they can’t because there are no opportunities.”

As for the future, Perry thinks Huntington is poised to return to a time of prosperity, much like the era of his youth that he recalls so fondly.

“I think we’re getting close. We live in a community with a good education system for our children. We have world-class medical facilities, wonderful cultural amenities and abundant recreational opportunities. And I’m hopeful. I’m excited.” Perry asserts that there are only two pieces of the puzzle missing – strong leadership and a return to hard work.

“Whether you run a company or are an elected official, you might think you’re on top of the triangle. But if you have the concept of a servant leader, you understand that that triangle is turned upside down and you’re on the bottom. You’re responsible for the well-being of all the people who work for you as well as your constituents. In addition, leadership is about bringing people with different attitudes together and saying, ‘We all share the same dream. Let’s put aside who gets credit and work together to reach our goals.’

“Huntington needs men and women who are willing to work hard. That’s what it takes. We’re not going to transform our community into what we want with people working an eight-hour day.”

Ever the historian, Perry points to the construction of the nation’s railroads as a perfect example of what hard work and collaboration can achieve.

“Think of all the different components required to build that revolutionary transportation system. You needed the government for numerous issues including right-of-ways. You needed private funding from entrepreneurs. You needed engineers, surveyors, supervisors and contractors. And you needed the blood, sweat and tears of the laborers. Management couldn’t forget labor, and labor couldn’t forget management. When you get that kind of synergy, you can change the world.”

These lessons from the past are why Perry has dedicated a good portion of his life and fortune building Heritage Farm Museum & Village. It is a living, breathing entity that he hopes will inspire future generations long after he is gone.

“If we apply the same lessons and disciplines that our ancestors taught us – being willing to embrace change, foster change, adapt to change – then our region can be great again. We just believe at Heritage Farm that you can prepare for a bright future by embracing your past.”

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