Bob was a giant in the disability world. He devoted his life to working with individuals unjustly sentenced to death row across the country. I had the pleasure to knowing Bob and bringing him to Illinois to learn from his advocacy and important work. He was also a former Executive Director in The Arc.
Rest in peace Bob.
For much of his adult life, Robert Perske worked on behalf of people with developmental disabilities, becoming the voice for many. Over the last 30 years, he worked on behalf of those he believed were wrongly convicted of crimes.
The Darien resident, who founded the advocacy group Friends of Richard Lapointe and worked to gain Lapointe’s release from prison, died Sunday night after a long battle with cancer. He was 88.
Perske, who was raised in Denver, began his work with people with developmental disabilities in the early 1960s, when they were still referred to as mentally retarded. An ordained Methodist minister, he went to work as chaplain of the Kansas Neurological Institution in Topeka, where he ministered to 250 children and young adults with developmental disabilities.
He served 11 years there, conducting church services with four-minute sermons and working with residents the rest of the week. He also wrote extensively about his experiences and ideas about caring for people with disabilities. After Sunday services, Perske with would greet and talk with each person who attended his service, recalled his wife of 45 years, Martha Perske. One of the young men who attended the service had cerebral palsy and it was difficult to understand him when he spoke.
She watched as Perske struggled to understand the young man. “He patiently listened,” she said, but still struggled. He then placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder and tried again, and again. “He worked with that boy until he got it,” she said. “He just was that way. He gave everything he had.”
Perske believed that people with disabilities could lead happier and more productive lives out in the community, rather than confined to institutions. And he continued to write.
In the 1970s, Perske was writing and working as director of the Omaha Association for Retarded Citizens when he received an offer from Random House to write about disabilities. He and his wife moved to Darien. The job was only for two years, but when it ended they decided to stay.
In Connecticut, Perske devoted himself to closing the state’s training schools. He became president of the Connecticut Association for Retarded Citizens, which is now known as The Arc Connecticut. And he fought to close the Mansfield Training School and for its residents to be placed in group homes in the community.
On the day it closed in 1993, Perske was among the speakers. “Please forgive us for failing to feel sad or nostalgic when we think about this place,” he said. “Instead we remember the agony of the parents. For them it was Mansfield — take it or suffer alone.” He underscored the inhuman conditions many Mansfield Training School residents lived in, and pressed for Southbury Training School to be closed.
Injustice angered Perske, and he fought against it. People with developmental disabilities were forgotten by so many in society, Martha Perske said. Perske would not tolerate that.
“He was just driven,” she said. “He just hated injustice, when anyone was treated unfairly.” And he knew people with disabilities were vulnerable. “They needed a voice and he was their voice.”
His advocacy evolved to assisting people with developmental disabilities charged with or convicted of crimes. In 1992, Perske learned about the case of Lapointe, a Manchester dishwasher accused of killing his wife’s grandmother in Manchester in 1987. He traveled to Hartford to observe the trial to perhaps write about it.
He was struck immediately, however, that there was no one in court supporting Lapointe.
“Everybody had pulled away from him and he had been pretty much in cold storage for three years before the trial,” Perske told The Courant in 2000. Perske quickly organized a group of people who became known as the Friends of Richard Lapointe. Lapointe was convicted of murder and other charges based largely on confessions he made to Manchester police.
Perske became convinced that the arrest and conviction were miscarriages of justice and that Lapointe, a man with a low IQ who was always eager to please, made false confessions. And he and the friends began their fight.
In 1996, after the state Supreme Court upheld Lapointe’s conviction, Perske said, “We’re hurt, but we’re not done. We’re just getting started.” For years, Perske traveled from Darien to Suffield once or twice a week to visit Lapointe in prison.
Their work culminated with the state Supreme Court last year overturning Lapointe’s conviction and ordering a new trial. Prosecutors opted not to retry Lapointe, but said they continued to believe he was guilty of the crimes for which he served prison time.
Kate Germond, executive director of Centurion Ministries, whose lawyers fought for and won Lapointe’s release, said Monday that she had been crying all day after learning of Perske’s death.
“He was a champion for those who couldn’t champion themselves,” she said. Without Perske, Lapointe would likely still be in prison, she said.
Germond said Perske was a “selfless, humble, self-effacing, wonderful man. I likened him to an angel walking around the Earth. You were better for knowing him.”
Telling Lapointe of Perske’s death will be a difficult task for the person it falls to, she said.
Martha Perske said her husband was humble and cared little about attention paid to him for his efforts. “He never thought he was so great,” she said. “I just think it was his work that spurred him on. It was his work with people with developmental disabilities that drove him.”
Even in death, Perske is still giving. He donated his body to the Yale School of Medicine. No funeral is planned, his wife said, but a memorial service is planned for the fall.
The Arc of Illinois
20901 S. LaGrange Rd. Suite 209
Frankfort, IL 60423