Perry, backer of GOP causes and Houston builder, dies at 80
Updated 9:23 am, Monday, April 15, 2013
Houston homebuilder, philanthropist and major political contributor Bob Jack Perry died Saturday night at his Nassau Bay home. He was 80.
"He's one of the finest human beings I have ever known in life. A true patriot and inspiration," said spokesman Anthony Holm, who worked with Perry for a decade.
Perry was best known for his top contributions to primarily conservative candidates and political action committees within the past decade.
U.S. District Judge David Hittner, a friend of Perry's, said he felt privileged to know the man outside his role as political moneymaker and was shocked to learn of his death.
"You just couldn't tell that the man was anywhere close to that age," Hittner said. "People may agree or disagree with his politics, but he was very committed to our political process and being a part of it."
He remembered him as a courteous man who always wore a tie and as an American from humble beginnings who enraptured 2,000 new citizens and another 3,000 family and friends as a keynote speaker at a naturalization ceremony three years ago.
Perry grew up in rural Bosque County selling rabbits, goats, sheep and banty hens in high school, according to his personal website.
"Not a day goes by that I don't remember our original home, a one-room house in Bosque County, and, yes, I am grateful for financial success, " Perry told the Houston Chronicle in 2002. "But I always remember it in the context of where I came from, and at the end of the day, we always return to dust."
He became a teacher like his father and worked construction jobs over summer breaks. In 1967, the Baylor alumnus founded his own company, Perry Homes, which became one of the largest in the nation.
"One of the best things you can say about Perry Homes is that it survived the recession of the '80s," said Barton Smith, economics professor at the University of Houston. "Many of those builders with roots in Houston struggled mightily and didn't make it through the hard times."
Smith remarked on the company's knack for keeping up with rapid demand, building "middle-class, solid good homes in good neighborhoods" and pioneering many Houston suburbs.
In the past decade, Perry became more active in politics, quickly becoming a top contributor not only in state races, but also to national groups.
The Center for Public Integrity ranked Perry third in its list of super donors, noting he contributed $23.5 million to Super PACs in 2011 and 2012. In the 2004 presidential campaign, he was a top donor to the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, which fervently questioned the accuracy of John Kerry's description of his military service in Vietnam.
Perry was a pragmatic Republican who became a kingmaker as "the most prolific political donor in the state of Texas," said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, who predicted Perry's death "is going to have a profound impact on Texas politics."
Perry regularly ranked as the largest individual donor to Texas conservative causes, including the gubernatorial campaigns of George W. Bush and Rick Perry.
He did sometimes donate to Democrats - like state representatives Eddie Lucio of Brownsville and Mike Villarreal of San Antonio - so long as they championed "education, economic liberty and tort reform," Holm told the Dallas Morning News last fall.
Perry had "a vision of a free-market Texas with limited government, a friendly business climate, low taxes but at the same time the infrastructure and education system that Texas needs to prosper in the 21st century," Jones said. "He was a strong conservative, but at the same time a pragmatic and realistic conservative."
For example, he bankrolled the successful 2005 effort to pass a state constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage but stunted a 2011 effort to expand the authority of police inquiring about the immigration status of people they detain.
Unfair influence denied
Jones noted that Perry gave more than $32 million to Texas candidates and issue groups since 2000. He said the large, regular donations sometimes influenced whether people ran at all since Perry's pick in the Republican primaries undoubtedly had an edge.
In a rare 2002 interview with the Chronicle, Perry argued his large contributions did not have an unfair influence. "It is my view that government is not owned by anyone, least of all wealthy contributors," he said. "The direction of government taken by either Republicans or Democrats invariably reflects public opinion, which always includes the 'average voters.' "
Although Perry was heavily involved in politics and philanthropy, he rarely sought credit, said many friends and colleagues.
"This is a man who has literally affected the world and he had so little desire to be credited," said George Hittner, friend and one-time Houston City Council candidate. "He just wanted to see the change made."
Hittner remembered one year when the Houston firefighters union wanted to recognize him as its annual champion and he declined, asking the group to choose someone more deserving.
Friends say they knew of many instances of spontaneous philanthropy, paying off medical bills or helping an employee through a tough time, but many declined to give details in keeping with Perry's humble spirit.
They remember him often quoting a plaque which sat on the desk of President Ronald Reagan, which read, "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit."
Hittner remembers fondly Perry joining his family for Seder, the ritual feast marking the beginning of Jewish Passover, and the many lunches and dinners when Perry would politely excuse himself early to return home to his wife, Doylene, whom he married in 1961.
Perry is survived by his wife and four grown children.
Staff writer Peggy Fikac contributed to this report.