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Mrs. Perkins


By Russell B. Roberts

Nearly every term-time Thursday afternoon for the last two decades, Mary Baker-Wilbraham Perkins peering out over a tea tray in the drawing room at 50 Holyoke Street, has held court. Hers has been a court of candid whimsy and grace which two thousand men of Lowell treasure among their Harvard recollections. For twenty-three years she has been the social overseer of Lowell House, while Elliott Perkins, her husband, has been its Master.

Mrs. Perkins was born i Devonshire, the daughter of Sir Philip Baker-Wilbraham, an English barrister, fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and for a long while, legal adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury. She grew up at Rode Hall, the family home in Cheshire, and attended school in London. She came to the United States i 1934 to visit friends of the family and while here met a young Harvard section man. He followed her back to England the following summer and they were married in the spring recess of 1937, returning to Cambridge in time for the resumption of classes. In 1940, they moved into the Master's Residence at Lowell House.

Mary Perkins possesses a sizeable quantity of the more endearing feminine virtues. In particular, she is a woman of wit: her candor and sense of humor are well known, and tales about her frequently zany remarks are freely exchanged by her admirers. Her frankness, if sometimes embarrassing to her husband, has always made her conversation enjoyable and worth remembering.

She can be slightly vague on occasion, has great taste, insight, and style. Her graciousness as a hostess has provoked a Lowell tutor to describe her, with certain provide, as "natively a lady." Her penchant for animation has prevented many a potentially dull social entertainment from becoming so.

But talk of popular virtues does not divulge the whole of Mrs. Perkins' personality. She possesses a certain something else, a stately, august quality which is distinctly Parkinson: she has it, her husband has it, and while they've been there, Lowell House has had it. In inspires a sort of genteel personality cult and though quickly recognizable, is thoroughly indefinable.

One of the chief amulets of this cult is the notorious Cucumber Sandwich. Devised during World War II when the ingredients of other canapés were strictly rationed, it is now served mostly at Thursday teas. The teas, of course, are the cult's most festive rites. Here Mrs. Perkins is in her element; she can send faculty members scurrying to the kitchen for more hot water or tell the Mayor of New York that the tea is all gone without ever breaking stride. The same charm which bewitches her guests at tea is present at all the Lowell House rituals and the other University functions which she attends, as well.

A gainly share of her alluring occult quality probably lies in the fact that Mrs. Perkins is English. "And that is, I will say," she says, "a great advantage. I can't telly you how kind people have been, particularly members of the House. If I do something quite hopeless they say, 'Oh, poor thing, she can't help it, she's English,' you see. They are very quick to make excuses, partly because I'm foreign and partly because, I think, people are basically nice and do make excuses.

"So if they think I'm quite mad, they're never very harsh on me. For instance, I believe in ghosts and all kinds of things of that sort, as you know. Well, most people here don't but they just say "Well this is interesting; here's a new kind of person I've never met before.' They'll forgive all sorts of what are considered peculiarities."

Most of her peculiarities are to be admired, not forgiven. Besides enlivening otherwise routine affairs, she had made many, contribution to her House. Her laudable taste has carefully guided the decoration of Lowell common rooms, she has assisted House members in innumerable ways, and has helped significantly in defining the somewhat nebulous position of a Master's wife.

Someone once asked her to write a humorous article on the life of a Master's wife, referring to her as a Mistress. "No," she answered, "anyone who has been a mistress that long would be very worn out by now." Not a Mistress to the Master's undergraduates, and not a mother to them either, she prefers to be thought of as a "nice aunt," someone to whom a student could come for advice and expect a frank opinion.

She looks back with obvious satisfaction on her time in Lowell House and particularly on her life with its Master. They were married April 1, 1937. "Well that's perfect," she explains, "I mean, you couldn't have echoes a better date. It seems to me that life has gone on being April the first, April Fool's all the time. We certainly couldn't have had a happier marriage."

And Lowell House couldn't be more satisfied in its Master's choice of wives. "It's been great fun," Mrs. Perkins says of her twenty-three years in the House, "and in many ways I am extremely sad about leaving." When Master Perkins retires from Lowell at the end of this term, he will take with him the finest priestess a personality cult ever boasted.

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