A LIFE OF SERVICE: DR. PERRY HENDERSON SCHEPP SCHOLAR 1954-1958
By: Banning Repplier, Trustee
Perry Henderson has come a long way. He grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the youngest of eight children. His father was a laborer, his mother a teacher and later a domestic worker. As a child, whenever people asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he used to say a doctor, not because at that point he really thought about being a doctor, but just to shut them up. When he was a teenager, however, he realized that, for most young African-Americans living in Cleveland in those days (the 1930’s and 40’s), the best jobs available were on the assembly line at a local auto factory. He knew he wouldn’t be able to bear that kind of monotony and started thinking more seriously about medicine as a career. He took pre-med courses in high school and later as an undergraduate at Morehouse College in Atlanta (class of ’54). Morehouse College was the only all-male, black institution of higher education in the United States.
After graduating from Morehouse College, Perry applied to medical school at Case Western Reserve University, one of only a handful that accepted black students. One of the reasons he chose Western Reserve was because it was in Cleveland and he would be able to save money by living at home. In his class, there were only three black students out of a total of seventy. An African-American physician on the clinical faculty told him about the Schepp Foundation. Perry applied and received grants throughout the four years of medical school.
During his internship, Perry realized that he preferred Obstetrics and Gynecology to other specializations because bringing babies into the world is considered a happy specialty. Over the course of a long and distinguished career, Perry completed four years of residency in OB/GYN in Cleveland, and then had a three-year fellowship in hematology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Following this, he joined the medical school faculty at the University of New Mexico. While there, he received a government grant to set up and direct multidisciplinary, pre-natal care clinics for underserved populations. He did this for eight years. His next and last move was to the University of Wisconsin where he was a professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology for 22 years and directed a regional high-risk pregnancy program. In 1984, Perry was a co- founder of the Perinatal Foundation. This foundation has given more than $1 million in grants and awards for education, scholarships, support and service in perinatal care.
While working in the high-risk pregnancy program, Perry realized that a great deal of his job involved helping people cope with stillbirths or losing a newborn infant. He also realized that this was an area most obstetricians were not equipped to handle. After doing considerable research, studying authors like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, he incorporated what he learned into medical protocols at the University to help doctors counsel patients suffering from perinatal grief and loss. He gave lectures on the subject around the country and set up grief seminars for couples who had experienced a stillbirth, had lost an infant or were expecting a new baby after having lost the previous one.
Even while teaching a full load at the University, Perry continued to see private patients. When he told one of his annual gyn patients, whose first two children he had delivered, that he was planning to retire in a year, she became visibly upset. She went home and got pregnant right away so he could deliver her third child.
Perry and his wife Virginia married during his final year at medical school. Virginia has an MA in psychology from Boston University and a PhD from the University of New Mexico. While at BU, she met Martin Luther King Jr., who was getting a PhD there, and they became friends. Virginia’s father was a pastor in Ohio who knew King’s father. Perry himself also knew Martin Luther King Jr. and, of course, admired him tremendously.
Perry and Virginia have three children. Sheryl, the oldest, is a pediatrician and earned her MD/PhD in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins (the first African-American woman to do so). She now teaches at the University of Wisconsin. Jasmine, their second child, went to Oberlin then got her MA in psychology and education at the University of Pennsylvania. After working in rape counseling and later as a TV screenwriter in Hollywood, she is now Director of Multiculturalism and Inclusion at an independent k-12 school in southern California. Perry Jr., the youngest, played soccer professionally for a few years after college before he entered law school and obtained a J.D. degree from Northeastern University. He lives in Boston with his wife and two sons and practices intellectual property law.
Perry is a strong believer in giving back and has played a meaningful role in the Madison community, especially among the young. For years, he has mentored a middle school student and a high school student, meeting with them once or twice a month and helping them plan their futures and cope with sometimes difficult home situations. One former mentee of Perry’s is now a college student.
He has also been very active in the Madison chapter of 100 Black Men of America, a volunteer organization dedicated to fostering academic achievement, mentoring, health and wellness, and financial literacy. The 100 Black Men of Madison chapter hosts an annual Back-to-School Picnic for elementary and middle school students and provides them with free backpacks filled with school supplies. They give away 1700 backpacks a year. The group also sponsors an African-American history contest for middle school students. The winning team gets an all expense paid trip to the 100 Black Men national conference, held in cities like Miami, Atlanta, New York and New Orleans.
Perry’s contributions have not gone unrecognized. In 2010, he won the “Candle in the Dark Award,” given for extraordinary service by Morehouse College. Other awards and honors include the 2003 Dade County Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Recognition Award for Leadership in Dade County (a joint recipient with his wife), the State Medical Society of Wisconsin’s Meritorious Service Award in 1994, the National Perinatal Association’s Award for Individual Contribution to Maternal and Child Health, the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award from the Urban League of Greater Madison (2000), the Student Service Award from the Medical Students for Minority Concerns at the University of Wisconsin (2002), and Father of the Year in 2002 from the American Diabetes Association’s Father’s Day Council.
We at the Schepp Foundation are extraordinarily proud that the faith we had in Perry all those years ago, when we helped him with his medical school tuition, has certainly more than been justified.