By: Sid Salter
State Rep. Felix Edwin “Stump” Perry was one of the most effective legislators in the long history of the Mississippi House, but it was the style with which Ed carried out his legislative duties that made Ed’s passing last week at age 76 statewide news.
Perry’s legislative pedigree is legendary. He was elected to the state House of Representatives from Lafayette County in 1967 and served 32 consecutive years or eight terms before retiring in 1999. While serving in the House, Perry at various junctures chaired the Appropriations, Constitution, Judiciary, and Municipalities committees.
Perhaps better than most, Perry understood that immense power that came from chairing the House Appropriations Committee and he used that power to benefit public education at all levels. But Ed’s loyalty to his Ole Miss alma mater was keenly evident.
During that time, Perry would summon Dr. Donald Zacharias, the thoughtful president of Mississippi State University, to testify before his committee and give him a fair hearing of the legislative “wish list” for the Starkville university. He likewise provided forums for the state’s other seven higher education institutions.
In that way, Perry would tell me, it made it easier to fund projects for the whole of higher education in Mississippi by not favoring his school over the other seven.
After his House retirement, the members elected him as Clerk of the House in 2000. Perry retired from that post in March 2004. He served as municipal attorney for the City of Oxford for 19 years and served 12 years as attorney to the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors.
Ed’s diminutive physical stature invited the nickname “Stump” and he wore it well, actually turning it to his advantage. On any number of occasions when Ed was speaking, a colleague from the back of the House floor would call on him to “stand up” while another would quickly answer that “he already is.”
In his prime, Ed’s challenged height was accentuated by a thick neck, short arms and a face reddened by exertion or the passion with which he was delivering a speech on the floor of the House. Ed’s prowess as a speaker was unmatched and neither his size nor the high pitch of his voice lessened his impact.
As lawmakers often said in deference to Perry: “Ed Perry could evermore shuck the corn.” Following his death, much has been made of Ed’s spot-on rendition of the fiery and rhetorically side-stepping 1952 “whiskey speech” delivered by former state representative, judge, and law professor Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat. To be sure, Ed could charm any audience large or small with his performance. But Ed was enthralled with all powerful speakers who could mesmerize audiences, not just Judge Sweat. He greatly admired the oratory of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
Back in 1982, Perry was among the inner circle of close friends of Mississippi author Willie Morris. Along with then Mayor John Leslie, Ed Morgan, Charles Henry, Clyde Goolsby, and David Sansing, Perry was one of the central figures in Willie’s life during his time as writer-in-residence at Ole Miss.
In those days, interlopers at Willie’s 16 Faculty Row bungalow on the campus on any given evening might encounter writers such as Larry L. King, William Styron, Larry McMurtry, David Halberstam, Winston Groom, George Plimpton and Mississippi journalists Orley Hood, Rick Cleveland, or Billy Watkins.
Those visiting luminaries were usually joined by a revolving collection of students, barflies, and camp followers, including elected officials on numerous occasions. “The oil of conversation” as Judge Sweat famously referred to whiskey, usually flowed. The conversations among that group was nothing short of fascinating.
Ed Perry captivated them all. Few who met Perry forgot him. His legislative legacy was simple – “be as good as your word.”
“Stump” Perry left state government in Mississippi far better than he found it by sticking to that creed.