WILLIAMSPORT — Tom Perry has packed nature, faith and music into his 77 years.
Perry and his wife, Linda, are trained to remove an invasive plant along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal known as garlic mustard, and he volunteers to take church groups and others on guided bicycle rides on the towpath.
Perry is a retired Lutheran pastor. When an Orange, Va., church where a relative played a pipe organ decided it did not want the instrument, Perry decided he did.
He has the mammoth machine set up in a family room in his house on Conococheague Street in Williamsport, and he plays it periodically.
“I did a little bit of everything, dabbling around, here and there,” Perry said.
Perry is also pretty good at drumming up support for multimillion-dollar government work.
He has been described as “the key person” who made the restoration of the Big Slackwater section of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park a reality, and he was honored for his efforts recently during a ceremony hosted by the Berkeley County, W.Va., Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America.
Perry’s love for the outdoors can be traced to his childhood, when his parents used to take the family to areas such as Maryland’s Sugarloaf Mountain in Frederick County and Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County, as well as Skyline Drive in Virginia.
He had relatives who farmed, so he became familiar with animals and growing crops.
Perry initially came to Washington County in 1970 to become pastor of Christ Lutheran Church on Cleveland Avenue in Hagerstown.
He and his wife left the area and returned after an absence of about 10 years.
They wanted to be close to the C&O Canal, and they found “this wonderful house” on Conococheague Street that is several blocks from the Potomac River.
Perry said he enjoys going to the canal and seeing glimpses of wildlife like blue herons and bald eagles. He recalled talking one time to a volunteer at the Williamsport Memorial Library about the towpath. The volunteer told Perry that since Perry received a lot of enjoyment from the towpath, he should give something back.
Perry joined the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Association, which strives to protect the towpath, and in 2005. Perry’s brother, Bob, who was a member of the association, appointed Perry to a committee that pushed for the Big Slackwater restoration.
The Big Slackwater section of the C&O Canal was closed after flooding along the Potomac River in 1996. That 2.7-mile section was closed for about 10 years, and was the only broken link in the popular hiking and biking path, which stretches 184.5 miles from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C.
Not only did Perry believe it was important to restore a part of history that led to Washington County’s prosperity in the 1800s and early 1900s, but he wanted Big Slackwater restored for safety reasons.
Because of the closed Big Slackwater section, hikers and bikers were forced to take a hazardous 4.5-mile detour along Dam 4, Dellinger and Avis Mill roads, which have no shoulders. Two years ago, the National Park Service determined that over a five-year period, there were 35 accidents along the detour in which someone was taken to a hospital.
As a member of the Big Slackwater Restoration Committee, Perry and others sought support for the restoration of the deteriorated section of the canal. Organizations were asked to support the restoration, and Perry and others contacted homeowners in the area and users of the towpath to get their input.
In August 2006, Perry and others organized a boat ride on the Potomac River to take elected officials and others down to Big Slackwater to show them the damaged sections.
“That really caused it to sink in,” recalled former state Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, who was on the trip.
Munson said he had been pushing for two bills in the Maryland General Assembly that would have set aside roughly $800,000 for the restoration of a railroad lift bridge and Lock House 44, which are two historic C&O Canal structures in the Williamsport area.
Munson said Perry’s passion for the restoration of Big Slackwater convinced him to instead seek the $800,000 for Big Slackwater.
Funding for the restoration of Big Slackwater came together. The bulk of it — $12.8 million — came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly known as the stimulus package.
The State of Maryland provided $4.4 million through its Transportation Enhancement Program, and the C&O Canal Trust and the C&O Canal Association also contributed.
The new Big Slackwater stretch of the park now has eight wide bridges, or elevated walkways, along a 1.5-mile stretch, anchored by 121 columns bolted into rock. A ribbon cutting at the site has been scheduled for Oct. 13, Perry said.
Munson said Perry was lucky because the federal stimulus money became available “on his watch.” But it was more than luck that caused the project to be successful, Munson said.
“Tom was the inspiration,” said Munson, who referred to Perry as “the godfather of the repairs.”
At a ceremony at the Berkeley County Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America near Bedington, W.Va., on Sept. 15, Perry received a National Honor Roll Award for his work on Big Slackwater. Munson and Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, were guest speakers at the event.
“He’s a real inspiration (for) volunteerism. He’s so deserving of credit,” said Waynesboro, Pa., resident Pat Crouse, who nominated Perry for the Izaac Walton League award.
When asked about the praise, Perry was reserved.
“People are very kind. They were there (Sept. 15) saying the same thing. I don’t believe it all,” Perry said.
Perry said he plans to be at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, noting he plans to jump on his bike with about 14 others and ride to the event.
“We’re going to get up with the chickens. Hopefully they will let us in,” he said.