The sudden death of Patti Perry of Marmarth has hit me like a sledgehammer. She was one of my favorite people in the world, one of the most extraordinary individuals I have ever encountered, and easily the strongest person I ever met. And though she was a big, tough, blunt, no-nonsense, sometimes coarse Marmarthian, she had a large, generous, creative brain and an exquisite sense of humor (usually at my expense), and she was as life-affirming a person as you could ever meet. She died on March 22 at Medcenter One in Bismarck after being brought low by a series of blood clots and infections. She was just 67 years old.
Patti Perry was not afraid of anything. I very much doubt that she was afraid of death — but I reckon Death tiptoed into the hospital a little wary of so formidable an antagonist.
The last person I ever expected to die was Patti Perry. She was one of those people who seem to be immortal. I have known her for 30 years and yet she never seemed to age. We had a pact that she would bury me when the moment comes — on the piney face of Pretty Butte on N.D. 16 north of Marmarth, where the Little Missouri angles in toward the base of the butte. This would have involved some legal irregularities, but that didn’t faze her at all.
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How can I describe her? Tribune reporter Lauren Donovan said Patti was “as tough as a rail spike.” That gets it perfectly. Patti was not the sort of woman whose photo would ever appear in the pages of Glamour magazine and the Perry residence in Marmarth is never going to be featured in the pages of House Beautiful. But she was a beautiful woman — in all sorts of essential ways. Her whole life was a bad hair day, but she could cook a meal that would knock your socks off, write a letter that would break the resolve of a killjoy regulator, or drive a herd of French Alpine dairy goats to Fresno in 30 nonstop hours.
She saw life in its fundamental terms. She was contemptuous of those who talked a good game, but shunned the blood and mud of the arena. She could milk a goat, make sausage, butter, or cheese, butcher a hog, change the oil, weld a bead, nurse a bum lamb or an orphan calf back to health. But she also could write a successful grant to a national funding agency, stand up to obstructionist bureaucrats, send an over-precise sheriff or a ne’er-do-well headlong out of town, or host a scholarly retreat. I have seen her testify until jaded old politicians were wiping tears of laughter out of their eyes.
She was for many years the mayor of Marmarth. She helped to create the Marmarth Historical Society, which she invariably called the Marmarth Hysterical Society. She helped create Slope County’s EMT program. She was the kind of emergency responder who arrives first on the scene of a terrible car accident, pulls someone out of a burning car with the jaws of life, and then administers careful emergency field care to a stranger barely holding on to life. When I hiked the entire Little Missouri River in 1985 and arrived at the Perry residence with a deep sore in the small of my back, she examined it and said, “This is a pretty bad wound, the kind that a guy like you would probably see a doctor about.” I settled for goat salve.
She took care of everyone else, but not so much herself. She was as tender as she was tough. She was an outstanding conversationalist, although at the brickbat end of the spectrum.
She had a natural gift for seeing through baloney, and making sure offenders knew they were full of it. Once, when I did something especially silly, Patti gave me her mock-angry look — an exaggerated frown but her eyes filled with mirth — and said, “There are two kinds of stupid. There’s stupid, and then there’s YOU.” Somehow that was an affirmation and a statement of affection, as were almost all of Patti’s insults. Virtually her favorite phrase, during the years when I knew her best, was, “You make me crazy!” She spoke the words “you make me” in standard North Dakota English, but she had a way of lingering on “crazy” until she milked it for all that it was worth. I got to the point in spending time with Patti that I was disappointed if she didn’t issue forth at least one “You make me craaazie” in the course of a day’s adventures.
Both times I hiked the Little Missouri River, she played a central role — as guide, goad, and court jester. When I was hungry, she gave me meat. When I was thirsty, she gave me drink. When I needed shelter, she took me in. When I was sick, she nursed me back to health. This was the code by which she lived, and I was just one of the many whose lives she improved.
When I was married in 1986, it was on top of Pretty Butte. Patti made the long climb to the scoria cap, possibly even shed a tear during the ceremony, and then told me if I ever asked her to climb Pretty Butte again she would tie me to a cottonwood tree and cut off my arms and legs just for fun.
She had the vitality of Theodore Roosevelt. I don’t know of anything Patti Perry couldn’t do once she set her mind to it. And though she was more likely to say “Bull!” than “Bully!” she relished life and increased the joy and courage of everyone she ever encountered. When TR died on Jan. 6, 1919, Vice President Thomas Marshall said, “Death had to take him sleeping. For if Roosevelt had been awake, there would have been a fight.” That’s actually the first thing I thought of when I heard the news.
I loved Patti Perry. I’m going to miss her immeasurably. My life, and the lives of many who knew her, are the less for her premature departure. I’m a little unhappy with her, to tell the truth, because if I had been in the ICU she would have burst into my room, no matter what the station nurses told her, and said, “Get your ass out of that bed and let’s get out of here.”
Patti Perry, you make me craaazy.
(Clay Jenkinson is the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College and director of the Dakota Institute. He can be reached at Jeffysage@aol.com or through his website, Jeffersonhour.org.)