Perry Burgess was a resident of Geneva-on-the-Lake; his residence stood where the Lake Erie Vista condos now rise.
The following story about Burgess, a famous author, was published by the Star Beacon in 2010.
Seventy years after it was first published, a novel written by an Ashtabula County author, humanitarian, lecturer and administrator continues to garner five stars from readers.
“This book is perhaps the most moving account of personal suffering, and courage, I’ve ever read,” comments one reader on the Amazon.com site.
“If you need a reminder, as we all do at times, that life can be full of purpose, love and joy no matter what curve ball life pitches — then this is a simply written story that will indelibly embed that notion in to your heart,” observes another reader who gave the book five stars.
The book is “Who Walk Alone,” written by the late Perry Burgess of Geneva-on-the-Lake.
The compelling novel is based on a true story of an Ohio man returning from the Spanish-American War. He discovers he contracted leprosy during his stay with a Philippine family. After being diagnosed, he makes the decision to leave his family in the United States behind and dedicate his life to working with the governor general to stamp out the disease from the island and face of the planet.
The book sold more than 123,000 copies without any benefit of book club distribution. It went through at least 32 editions, and as the modern reviews show, still touches the hearts of those who read the story of this real-life hero.
The story reflects Burgess’ personal passion for helping eradicate leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease. Years before he wrote the book, Burgess helped found the Leonard Wood Memorial American Leprosy Foundation, an organization that continues the work of Major Leonard Wood, the real-life governor general in Burgess’ book.
Moved by the plight of the leprosy patients on the island, Wood, a physician, partnered with H.W. Wade, professor of pathology at the University of the Philippines in Manila, to obtain funding for the study and eradication of the disease. The foundation was founded in 1928, and Burgess served as its president and executive officer from 1930 to 1958, after which he served as president emeritus.
Burgess, who died in 1962 at the age of 78, was not a native of Ashtabula County. He moved to Geneva-on-the-Lake after marrying his second wife, Cora (Turney), of Madison in 1936.
He was born in Joplin, Mo., in the “lawless foothills of the Ozarks” near Indian territory. He became a “boy preacher” at the age of 16 and used that talent to pay his way through Baker University. He received his undergraduate and law degrees from the school.
“After preaching my way through college, I became national field director of the Near East Relief Campaign, an assignment which led to a wonderful year with Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, the Labrador doctor, raising funds to carry on the work of that remarkable man,” Burgess wrote in an autobiography published in “Twentieth Century Authors.”
“But the continuing adventure of my life began when Governor-General Leonard Wood of the Philippines appealed to the American public to create a research foundation for the study of Hansen’s disease (leprosy).
“ ‘Do people still have that?’ I exclaimed. “And so I began to learn something of the story of the most tragic people on the face of the earth. From the onset I realized that this work was something I had to do. From that day to this I have been a man fired by the excitement and driven toward a goal, not yet in sight, but never out of mind.”
After starting the foundation, Burgess traveled all over the world, visiting leprosy colonies and working with governments to raise awareness of the disease and its treatment.
“… I began the journeys that have taken me not over the highways but into the byways of the world; I have poked my nose into almost every country on earth. I am not an orthodox traveler, for after a quarter century of roaming I have yet to see many of the wonders of the world, but I have seen many of its grim sights. I have met men, women and children, exiled from the world by age-old fear, living in jungle huts, in unspeakable Indian villages, even in graveyards. And I have seen their gallantry and courage in the face of despair.”
Between his travels, Burgess had two children, Esther and Elizabeth, with his first wife, Helen Noble. Cora had two children from a previous marriage, Coralyn and John, and Perry adopted them and had John’s name legally changed to Perry Jr.
Burgess received a fresh infusion of energy and passion for his cause with his second marriage. Turney came from a well-to-do family, but adopted her husband’s penchant for the world’s downtrodden. In his autobiographical sketch, Burgess described his wife as “my companion and fellow worker ever since (their marriage), carrying her brightness into the dark places of the world. Certainly hers must have been the strangest honeymoon on which a woman ever embarked for it took us into most of the leprosaria of the world.”
For Burgess, the marriage also took him into an overgrown estate on the shores of Lake Erie, known as “Livingston Cottage,” the summer cottage of Cora’s grandfather.
In his biography, “Born of Those Years,” Burgess describes how he and his wife labored to reclaim the property from the years of vegetation growth that had blocked a view of “the great sweep of water that is so thrilling to watch because of its ever-varying mood, from a quiet mill pond to raging ocean…”
Cora was in charge in remodeling and redecorating the house. Burgess put his hobbies of golf and tennis on hold while he tackled the grounds.
“The clearing that I had to do by my own physical labor before I had the thrill of seeing beauty come to life symbolized for me the clearing that must be done in the minds of people before they can see the truth about the problem that has so deeply and profoundly concerned me,” he wrote.
The couple lived out their lives on this special piece of land; Perry writing his books, continuing his work on behalf of the world’s forgotten people; Cora serving as his helper; and both of them raising their children.
Cora died in June 1962; Perry died shortly thereafter at the age of 76. Both are buried in Madison.
His son, Perry Burgess Jr., is deceased. Coralyn spends her summers in Saybrook Township.
Burgess, in his autobiographical sketch, called his second book “a record of what has been accomplished to date, and a signpost pointing out what remains to be done in our tireless but hopeful battle (against leprosy).”
Both books also provided signposts for common people to accomplish great things, inspired by the fictional character of Ned Langford in “Who Walk Alone” and the real-life Perry Burgess in “Born of Those Years.” The novel became especially popular with teenagers, who found in its pages direction for their lives.
In the closing paragraphs of that book, Burgess offered advice to graduates with their adult lives spreading before them like that lake just outside his window:
“I suggest they look for the job in which they will be happiest,” he wrote. “It is the only kind of job that makes sense in the long run. Speaking for myself, it is the only job for which there are not enough hours in the day or enough days. What I could do in another lifetime!