Harry works, doesn’t want the credit – or the Perks

Philadelphia Daily News

Monday, December 29, 1997, Page 10

Harry who? He’s the man behind practically every thing good

By Dave Davies

For years, Harry Perks has scoffed when I’ve told him I should write a column about him.

But I knew I had to do it a month ago, when I saw Harry at the Convention Center with an employee badge around his neck. More on that later.

I called Harry and told him I was going to write about him and wanted his resume, and there was a pause on the other end of the line.

“Can’t I talk you out of that crap?” he said.

It was vintage Harry, and it’s why you ought to know about this guy.

Unlike the inflated egos who claim credit for everything that happens in Philadelphia, Perks has been quietly getting very big things done for decades. He may be the most important Philadelphian you never heard of.

A short list of some local landmarks this Yale-trained engineer has had a major hand in building includes Veteran’s Stadium, the Pennsylvania Convention Center, about 30 city schools, the Center City commuter tunnel, the Academy of Music, the primate house at the zoo, and the renovation of all 53 libraries in the city.

I knew none of this when I first met Harry in 1985. He was the mild-mannered bespectacled guy who had become Streets commissioner just as the city was descending into trash-disposal hell.

New Jersey had shut the city out of its landfills, and Harry was soon punching the phone in his Municipal Services Building office, frantically calling landfill owners hundreds of miles away, begging for leave to dump a few loads of trash at practically any price. Many wouldn’t even call back.

There were days when the city had used its dumping quota for the day and had to store trash overnight in incinerator pits or transfer stations, even in collection trucks. Besides fighting the garbage-disposal beast, Harry was wrestling the union for control of the Streets Department.

When he invited bids for a long-haul trash contract, hoping someone could take the city’s trash by rail to Ohio landfills, union members jammed hallways to stop bidders from getting in.

They moved the bid-taking to another site, and union boss Earl Stout found his way to the room and called Mayor Goode to try to put a stop to it.

“Mayor Goode deserves the credit,” Perks said of the incident. “He defied Earl Stout and backed us up.”

By 1988, Harry had not only survived the landfill crisis but had agreed with the union on major productivity changes in trash collection – larger trucks, smaller crews, new work rules.

Perks typically credits his partners. “The union did so much for me,” he said. “I wouldn’t have survived without them.”

Harry retired again in 1988 and took golf lessons.

But soon enough, the city needed him. The Convention Center project was foundering. There were disputes with Reading over cleaning up PCB’s at the old train shed, squabbles among politicians, and hundreds of other issues.

Perks remembers when Tom Muldoon, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, called him in June 1989.

“He must have called me four times,” Perks said. “I told him I wasn’t interested. Then in August he sent me a set of drawings, and he hit my weakness. I started looking at them, thinking how I could do this or that.”

Soon, Perks was running the Convention Center construction, doing what he knows how to do – guiding a project through the twists and turns and traps of environmental laws, public bidding, minority participation, political opposition and general chaos.

It was sometime during this that I became aware of Harry’s past, of how Richardson Dilworth had called on him to supervise a building program in the School District in the 1960s that was unparalleled before or since. It is the public service Perks is most proud of.

And I learned of his work for Day and Zimmerman on Veteran’s Stadium and the Center City commuter tunnel.

When the Convention Center was done in 1992 on time and on budget, there was a debate over its future management, and some accused Harry behind his back of trying to preserve a job for himself as operations director.

Harry said he had no interest, and when the debate was settled, he left as promised and retired.

But he turns up, again and again, working now for his son Chris’ firm, straightening out construction of the Clef Club on the Avenue of the Arts, managing the massive library renovations, and working on the zoo, the Academy of Music, the new orchestra hall. They all need what Harry knows how to do.

So, back to that day a month ago when I saw Harry with the employee badge at the Convention Center.

He was there because the Convention Center’s crack operations director, Lew Dawley, had left, and the folks who earlier had accused Harry of trying to set up a job for himself had asked him if he would help out as director of operations until they found somebody permanent.

Harry told me he didn’t want any stories about him, that he works best anonymous.

“Why don’t you wait till I retire?” he asked.

Why, Harry, I thought you did.

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