BY MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – Rita Perry, 91, a mover and shaker in many community activities, who, with her friend of seven decades, Helen Beaven, started the town’s first Girl Scout troop and headed up numerous PTAs, passed away last Wednesday at Kent Regency, in Warwick, after a period of declining health.
A former member of the GOP Town Committee, she leaves a legacy of compassion, concern and a boundless appetite for organizing projects. With her chum Helen, she produced everything from children’s birthday parties attended by huge numbers of kids to Republican political fundraising events.
“She had an amazing life,” says her daughter Carol, wife of North Kingstown School Committeeman Bill Mudge. “She was the youngest of 10 in an Irish-French immigrant family and grew up in Olneyville. The family never owned a home, never had a car or a phone. It was a big deal to get a pair of roller skates or a sled to share among all the kids.
“She went to Catholic school and she loved the nuns who taught her how to sew.”
She met her future husband Charles, who would go on to be a state senator and Blue Cross executive, in high school. After working in a five-and-dime, Rita was employed in the home decorating department of The Outlet where her instinct for fabric was cultivated.
The latter job inspired her to start a business making custom slipcovers and window treatments where she counted tobacco heiress Doris Duke among her clientele.
Carol warmly describes Rita as “a wonderful mother” providing lots of guidance and wholesome activities. She remembers that, at the Girl Scout summer day camp at Juniper Hill, Rita taught legions of girls how to braid a lanyard and make stew over a campfire.
“Even now, grown women talk about how much they enjoyed the time they spent with her.”
Rita was incredibly generous. She took in her husband’s brother and his two sons for a long-term arrangement. One of her relatives came to stay, too.
“There was always someone living with us,” Carol notes. A friend of Rita’s who was widowed was welcomed to her home. “We called her ‘Aunt Ginny’; she lived with my mother for 20 years. Mom was good to everybody. They were all special to her.”
After Rita survived a serious illness a few years ago, she and Carol filled out a book together that personalized family experiences and values. Rita’s response to the question “What special talents did your parents nurture in you?” was this: “To help anyone who needed help and never to ridicule anyone.”
Besides Carol, Rita is survived by daughters Patricia Miranda, Christine Arruda and Linda Kokla; she was the grandmother of six, great-grandmother of 13 and great-great-grandmother of three.
Her deep, productive friendship with Helen Beaven was the subject of a column appearing here on Christmas Eve 2009. In it, the women laughed, remembering youthful exploits and their many activities that helped to weave a rich tapestry of community life.
Rita and Helen regarded each other as sisters, with Rita noting, “Everyone always called us bosom friends. Of course, we had big chests.”
The pair spoke of a special closeness which had withstood the test of time: their lives had been intertwined in a saga of public service and dedication to family. They were drawn together by shared goals and a generous measure of mutual respect.
“We were always together, planning and doing,” Helen recalled. At one time, both were involved in three separate PTA groups in elementary, middle school and high school.
Helen talked about Rita’s extraordinary energy. “She never stopped. When she said she was going to do it, she did it. We laughed our way through a lot of years.”
Now 94, Helen is bereft by the loss of her treasured companion.
Speaking through tears, she said, “It’s tough. Seventy years is a long time to be friends. We ran everything in the town – dances, clambakes, picnics. We first met when our kids were in kindergarten.”
As their bond strengthened, she added, “Rita called me Sister Helen and I called her Sister Rita. We always kept in touch.”
She recalled an occasion in Spring 2009 that left her mortified although everyone else who was present thought it hilarious. Helen made a quilt to be raffled as a fundraiser for programs at the Davisville Library. After someone stole it, she and her daughter made a second.
At the drawing, Helen had the honor of reaching into the bowl of tickets and choosing the winner.
“I scrambled all the names really well, picked one and handed it to the girl who was going to make the announcement. I didn’t even look at the ticket.”
In an uncanny turn of events, Rita won Helen’s quilt.
“She took it home and hung it in her room,” says Helen.
As Rita’s health failed, Helen visited her every week, driven by her son – first to Rita’s home and, at the end, to the nursing facility.
“We were together forever,” Helen says. “There are not many friendships that last that long.”