Donor Profile: Nancy Perkins
MRS. GEORGE W. PERKINS JR. is not the least bit interested in publicity. Like most people of her generation, she would sooner sit for a double root canal than see her family's name emblazoned on a building to memorialize their generosity. But Mrs. Perkins, known as Nancy, will proudly, at times ruefully, discuss her late husband's legacy and the pastoral life they chose together—raising children and cattle, attending church and supporting their town—on a remarkable piece of farmland in Millbrook, New York.
George came from a storied line of men who were his namesakes: diplomats and businessmen who served Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower and who worked alongside the likes of J.P. Morgan and George W. Merck to transform politics and business in the last century. Instrumental in the preservation of the New Jersey Palisades, several generations of the Perkins family lived at Wave Hill in Riverdale and Glynwood in Cold Spring—now public properties that advance the study of farming and horticulture and welcome thousands of annual visitors.
Nancy was raised among independent women in a multigenerational household in the Deering neighborhood of Portland, Maine. Her mother left behind an errant husband—but work she loved as a librarian at the New York Public Library—to resettle with newborn Nancy among college-educated aunts and cousins in her parents’ comfortable home. Nancy recalls taking trolleys into town, including a memorable trip to the Eastland Hotel when she came of age for a glass of sherry with her mother, who was by then the owner of a thriving bookstore.
George and Nancy met at the University of Maine, married in 1950 and moved to Walbridge Farm, where George became an internationally known breeder of black Angus cattle. He had purchased the property while still in school and, in a leap of faith, Nancy gave up teaching to sign on for farming life.
“I never drove a car until I married,” Nancy says. “And George bought a standard shift. He probably wanted me to drive a tractor. But I have never driven a clutch—ever!”
Life in Millbrook was “quiet, peaceful and pleasant,” Nancy says. “It was another time.” They raised two children, while traveling the world to show prizewinning Walbridge cattle. “George was a great businessman,” she says, noting his early exposure to farm management at Glynwood and his sure leadership of several Dutchess County Fairs. “He knew everything there was to know about farming.”
Once her children were school age, Nancy turned to volunteering. Through the Lyall Federated Church, she was active in a Meals on Wheels program. Her time as a teacher led to her being tapped for the board of the former Hudson River State Hospital, which at the time was treating as many as 6,000 patients with mental illness.
Over the years and in their discreet way, the family were generous benefactors of all of the town’s anchoring institutions, from the library to the fire department to the music program at the public high school. Through a fund she established at Berkshire Taconic five years ago, Nancy has made extraordinary additional commitments to education through one of the largest endowed scholarships in the region, as well as funding for education enrichment activities in four northern Dutchess school districts.
“We do as much as is necessary,” Nancy says plainly. “Family giving was part of life. We’ve always helped, and felt an obligation to give back.”
This steady commitment to her town is undiminished, even as the Millbrook she once knew has in some ways vanished. Gone is the dress shop where she bought daughter Jennifer’s bridal gown. The two grocery stores are down to just one. “Every day I see properties for sale,” Nancy laments.
Nor has it waned through her own personal losses, including the death of her son in his 30s and her husband’s failing health in his last decades. Happily, the generous Perkins spirit lives on in Jennifer, who went to Utah for college and stayed, and who is active in land preservation while lending leadership to her family’s charitable endeavors.
Nancy has adapted to it all, and she has kept on giving. Today, with the support of a capable team in her home, she has a “very good routine and system” that help make her life peaceful and pleasant once more.
But there will be no ornamental plaques. No engraved bricks naming Mr. and Mrs. George W. Perkins, Jr. for every visitor to see. Just this: the story of an unassuming couple leading lives of purpose in their chosen home, giving back year after year because it was the only way they ever knew.