A Life Remembered: Dan Perrino stood for harmony

URBANA — Friends and fellow musicians remembered Dan Perrino as a man devoted to developing musical talent and a person who reached out to build goodwill in the community.

Mr. Perrino, 91, a longtime UI music professor, saxophonist and the founder of Medicare 7, 8 or 9 Dixieland jazz ensemble, died Friday morning in Urbana.

His son, Mike Perrino, described his dad as "a very giving guy" who made sure everybody in the family experienced and appreciated all types of music. "We learned to appreciate music of all styles, so that, when the Beatles were done, we could enjoy other forms of music and their performances," he said. "We had a full life because of the things he introduced us to."

Mr. Perrino joined the UI faculty in 1960 as an assistant professor of music. A year later, he became director of the Illinois Summer Youth Music program. He helped start many longtime programs at the UI, including Quad Day, the Black Chorus, La Casa Cultural Latina and the African-American Cultural Program. He served as associate dean of the College of Fine and Applied Arts from 1976 until his retirement in 1988.

Willard Broom, former UI associate dean of students, remembered Mr. Perrino as a man who "brought out the best in everyone."

"You would never find him in his office," Broom said. "He was out more than anybody on the campus, always involved with helping other people."

Mr. Perrino founded Medicare 7, 8 or 9 in 1969 after an impromptu Dixieland jazz concert at the Illini Union designed to sooth tensions on campus from anti-war protests, racial unrest and general social upheaval. The group of music faculty was an immediate hit, and the band ended up playing more than 2,000 concerts across the country for the next 30 years before retiring in 1999.

Mr. Perrino, through "the magic of his personality," brought a stability to campus that had been missing for some time, said Jim Vermette, then-president of the UI Alumni Association, who came from the same south Chicago neighborhoods where Mr. Perrino grew up.

"During the late '60s and early '70s, there was tremendous tension on campus, with students mad at the administration and faculty mad at the students for being disrespectful," Broom said. "Dan brought people together who would never think of being in the same room together through music."

Don Heitler, pianist for Medicare 7, 8 or 9, called Mr. Perrino "a remarkable person, one of a kind."

"He was a very special guy, a very caring person, a very giving person," Heitler said.

In 1993, Perrino began working part time for the UI Alumni Association.

"Dan knew no strangers," said Vanessa Faurie, vice president for corporate communications for the UI Alumni Association. "He was inherently curious about everyone and worked to help people achieve their dreams. He had a very generous spirit, and he was a UI legend."

Dena Vermette, one of the original singers with Medicare 7, 8 or 9, said the name was happenstance. Someone asked Mr. Perrino what the group was called, and he said, "Well, we're all on Medicare, and there's 7, 8, or 9 of us here" depending on who showed up, she said.

She became a featured singer with the band after meeting Mr. Perrino at a party at former UI Chancellor Jack Peltason's house. Mr. Perrino was playing piano during a singalong, heard Vermette singing alongside him and asked her to perform with the band.

Mr. Perrino was the heart of Medicare 7, 8 or 9, constantly recruiting new musicians, arranging tours and connecting with the audience, the Vermettes said. But he also let others shine. "He was really a dynamo," Dena Vermette said, "but he was also humble."

Mr. Perrino was honored at the UI Alice Campbell Alumni Center for his 90th birthday, where numerous former students returned to help him celebrate.

Among the young musicians he befriended was Sheila Johnson, founding partner of Black Entertainment Television and accomplished violinist. She arrived at the UI campus in 1966 as one of just perhaps 150 black students on campus, and found a mentor in Mr. Perrino, who was an assistant dean of students charged with making the campus friendlier to minorities. Prejudice was common, with local restaurants and barber shops refusing to serve blacks. Mr. Perrino and his wife, Marjorie, introduced Johnson to other talented students and invited her to their home to give advice or just visit.

Mr. Perrino suffered from macular degeneration and wasn't able to drive in recent years, but he continued to mentor young musicians into his 90s. Most recently, he had been working with Caitlin Caruso-Dobbs, winner of the ACE student award and a recent graduate of the High School of St. Thomas More, said Jayne DeLuce, president and CEO of the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "There are pages that could be written about the impact he's had on people," DeLuce said. "He's had such a full life."

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ROB McCOLLEY wrote on August 18, 2012 at 9:08 pm
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Very nice man, sharp and interested right up to the end. The macular degeneration really bothered him because he wanted to stay involved.