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He's the unofficial ambassador of the Central West End

Art Perry is a fixture in the St. Louis community. Perrys years with Kean Drug in the Central West End led him to study at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, where he was one of only three African Americans in his class. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
September 22, 2011
He's the genial, if unofficial, ambassador of the Central West End. Walking down practically any street in the neighborhood, he's greeted warmly, his hand pumped, his smile returned.

Other municipalities claim him, too. Breakfasting the other day in Clayton, Art Perry was approached by an investment advisor. It wasn't as if the man had handled Perry's money. Quite the contrary. The advisor remembered Perry from the old Kean Drug, long located at North Euclid and Laclede avenues in the Central West End and owned by brothers/pharmacists Bernard and David Kean.

Perry worked at Kean Drug for 27 years, ascending from clerk to manager (fondly called "maitre de'" by the Keans) and then pharmacist.

"We were two Jews (the Keans) and a 'schwartza' (Yiddish for black person)," Perry laughed.

They might as well have been three brothers. Perry was a regular at Kean family events, including bar and bat mitzvahs, and anniversaries. He last worked for Kean Drug in 1981. Yet 30 years later, people still seek him out.

Could it be that 6-foot-tall, 195-pound Perry, now 73, retired and still an avid cycler, hasn't aged? He demurs.

"I think the only thing that hasn't changed is my voice," he said. He has that willing-to-listen sort of voice, the kind that prompts the sharing of woes and dreams.

Take the case of the forlorn young lawyer. He hovered frequently at Kean Drug's pharmacy counter. Perry scoped out why.

The lawyer was smitten by a young woman working behind the counter. Perry introduced them. Soon, the woman was also lovesick. Now long married, the duo lives in Vermont.

"We stay in touch," Perry said.

Art Perry, an avid cyclist, spends a lot of time on the Forest Park bike trail. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
That's his way. He observes. He inspires. And when necessary, he bucks trends. His parents grew up in southern Arkansas. His dad was a laborer on Produce Row here. His mother cared for her son and his three older sisters.

At a time when few local African Americans were able to rent property west of Kingshighway Boulevard, the Perrys rented space in a four-family flat, located on a sliver of the downtown tract where the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project would span. (The 33-building Pruitt-Igoe was completed in 1954. Its demolition in the 1970s came to symbolize the failure of government-funded housing.)

However, crime, drugs and violence plagued the area well before Pruitt-Igoe. Gang members in Perry's day made handguns from wood and metal pipes.

"I never shot or stabbed anybody," he said, "but I was around when some of those things happened. Enough said."

As a bike-riding, teenage delivery guy, he went to work for Sun Drugs in 1952. When the Kean brothers opened their drugstore two years later, they hired him.

Bernard Kean had graduated from St. Louis College of Pharmacy in 1948, his brother David in 1952. Perry would later join the school's alumni roster. Much later.

Initially, the director of Central Institute for the Deaf, a customer of the Keans, pleaded with young Perry: "Art, you're smart. You've got to go to college."

Perry took one class at St. Louis University (SLU), then another. His dad was furious. Why would someone sacrifice wages, accept a loan from his employers and voluntarily cut his workweek from 60 hours to 40 hours at Kean Drug, in order to attend school?

It's not about current income, said the younger Perry, the first in his family to enroll in college. His focus was the future. His dad had quit school after the fourth or fifth grade.

Perry's college tuition was approximately $300 per semester. He mostly covered costs by saving every coin that came his way, from tips, salary and the change he received after making a purchase. When Perry lacked funds, he borrowed off his credit card, then paid his debt by saving coins.

The end of Perry's junior year proved a turning point. He and his wife Vivian had married in 1960. In time, they would have three children and a mortgage on their Central West End home.

Would Perry's intended major in political science lead someday to a sufficient income?

"I don't know anybody like you who has made a career and supported a family with such a degree," he recalled a SLU faculty member telling him.

It was the mid-1960s, the era of protests, sit-ins and marches, all aimed at ending racial discrimination against African Americans. But rather than gamble on his ability as a provider, Perry wanted a more saleable major.

At last heeding the advice of the Keans, he transferred his SLU credits, including his many science classes, to St. Louis College of Pharmacy. There, he became one of three African Americans in his class.

As a pharmacy student, Perry continued to work at Kean Drug. And in 1972, nine years after first enrolling at St. Louis University and after two years of putting his education on hold so he could work longer and harder to replenish his savings, he graduated from the college of pharmacy.

Finally, the elder Perry praised his son's accomplishments.

But more complications arose. Due to family illnesses, the Keans sold their business in 1973. Although they offered it first to Perry, he lacked the funds but agreed to work for the new owners.

Eight years later, Perry had a change of heart. After nearly three decades employed by drugstores and despite an offer ("I still can't believe it," he said) by some neighborhood residents to set him up with his own pharmacy, Perry accepted a job with Eli Lilly company. Kean Drug closed in 1984.

Once again, Perry's career decision left his father dumbfounded. Why would a trailblazer, a success, go to work for Lilly, albeit one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, as "just a salesman?"

Perry's six promotions during his 19 years with Lilly catapulted him into the ranks of those selling the company's drugs to the U.S. government. He retired from Lilly in 2000.

Perry and his wife Vivian, an early childhood teacher and a business owner, had divorced in 1991. He married Carolyn, a physician who has two children, in 1994. Between them, he and Carolyn have five offspring and now, five "grands," or grandchildren.

Using a style he dubbed "wogging," a combo of walking and jogging, Perry ran in four marathons, the last one 20 years ago. But even as a retiree, he has challenges to conquer and share.

"You 'Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,'" he said, quoting the title of a classic hymn popularized during the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. You set your goal and break it down, he explained.

And then, just as Perry does, you figure out how to reach it.

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