Mike Perrino and I had exactly the same reaction to the turnout for his father’s memorial tribute on Sunday (Sept. 9) at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center at the University of Illinois:
Hundreds of relatives, friends, colleagues, musicians and former students going back to Dan Perrino’s high school teaching career filled the large room to overflowing into the atrium.
“We are really, really humbled by all the people who are here today,” Mike Perrino told the people who came to pay tribute to perhaps the most popular and effective UI administrator of the last part of the 20th century.
Dan Perrino, of course, was more than an administrator. The many photographs — “moments to remember” — showed that. They were projected on four large screens in the main room and on more in the atrium. They showed Perrino having fun, often with his family; on his summer vacations in Michigan; eating ice-cream cones; wearing Halloween costumes; sitting and smiling on a sofa, flanked on each side by a dog; mentoring young musicians, which he did late into his life, before dying last month at age 91.
In the atrium were more photographs; one photo board showed Perrino as most of us did not know him - a soldier in the Navy during World War II. Back then his hair was thick and curly and his smile, infectious. Also in the atrium was a wall covered with sheets of paper on which people could write tributes to Perrino. Some wrote that he had changed their lives. Or made them better.
Perrino was a people person extraordinaire. He had a way of making everyone he encountered feel special. He was that way at home, too, Mike Perrino said.
"He had a way of making all of us feel very important, even if you were a middle child," said Mike, who is one.
Acting as emcee at the memorial was Patrick Hayes, who worked with Perrino at the UI Alumni Association and earlier in life as a roadie for the Medicare 7, 8 or 9 (depending on how many musicians showed up) Dixieland jazz band. Hayes created a thread for the program, delivering the narrative of Perrino's life, interspersed with live jazz and other music and eulogies.
Delivering those besides Mike Perrino were:
- The Rev. Steve Shoemaker, who first met Dan when he was 15 when Perrino was band director at Urbana High School. Shoemaker led the audience in an a cappella version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
- Willard Broom, a former UI administrator who in the ‘70s was a student gofer for Perrino.
- Rick Murphy, music teacher at Uni High who first met Perrino at Illinois Summer Youth Music, which Perrino directed early in his career at the university.
The memorial was emotionally moving, delightful, a little sad, profound. Perhaps the most poignant moment came when the UI Band, directed by UI band director Rob Rumbelow, played a beautiful arrangement of “Danny Boy.”
"I know Dan was Italian but that 'Danny Boy' hit me hard," Hayes said, wiping his eyes.
Perrino grew up in the Italian neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. By the time he was 13 he, as a saxophonist, was leading his own band. In high school he started his own swing band. During World War II he joined the Navy and worked in communication and was eventually asked to form a band to build morale among the troops.
He became a high school band director, working at Macomb, Quincy and Urbana (more than a dozen people from those early days attended the memorial) before the University of Illinois hired him away in 1960.
There he started or was instrumental in forming long-lasting initiatives such as the Black Chorus, Quad Day, the Krannert Center Student Association, La Casa Cultural Latina and the African-American Cultural Program.
In the late '60s he formed Medicare 7, 8 or 9 to ease campus tensions. Doing that, he took music that was corny and made it cool. Medicare 7, 8 or 9 went on to become the most popular ambassadors for the university, traveling all over the country to play for alumni and others.
Louis Bergonzi, who attended the memorial and holds the Daniel J. Perrino Chair in Music Education at the UI, told me Perrino was decades ahead of his time, engaged in “community music” before the term was coined.
“It was happening all the time but he was able to pull the institution into it,” Bergonzi said, calling Perrino “amazing.”
I first knew of Perrino when I was a UI student and heard Medicare perform at the Illini Union. (Many former Medicare 7, 8 or 9 musicians performed at the memorial, which I loved.) Later, as a Daily Illini photographer, I spent a day in 1975 following Perrino around on campus, photographing him as he met with students and others. He seemed to know everyone.
So at the memorial I related most to Broom, who said UI students in the 1960s and ‘70s trusted Dan when they trusted no one else. “Dan was not one of them,” Broom said, referring to what we called “the establishment.”
“Dan was curious and engaged the entire time I knew him,” Broom said. “Dan touched our lives and we are better for it. He gave so much love and trust. We are multiplying that energy he brought.”