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John Holliday Perry Jr.

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If there was a secret to John Holliday Perry Jr.'s success, it was that he got bored from time to time. He built submarines, invented pioneering newspaper technology, flew Army planes and worked to develop renewable energy — not exactly a dull life, but not enough to satisfy him. So he developed a national economic plan, helped prepare a national ocean program and invented a deep-sea recovery vehicle that became the center of a Smithsonian exhibit. Mr. Perry, of Palm Beach Gardens, never truly retired and "wasn't the type of man who would," said his wife, Helena. A former publisher of The Palm Beach Post and other local publications, as well as an accomplished inventor and industrialist, Mr. Perry died Tuesday at a hospital in Gainesville, Ga. He was 89. In 2002, Riviera Beach named its planned aquarium, a key aspect of its $1.25 billion redevelopment plan, after Mr. Perry. At various times, he owned Perry Cable, Perry TriTech, Perry Technologies, Perry Baromedical, Perry Oceanographics and Perry Submarine Builders. In 1990, he founded Energy Partners, a small research and development company in West Palm Beach devoted to the concept of clean fuel for homes and autos using fuel cells, which extract hydrogen from fossil fuels, then convert it into electricity. "What John wanted for the world and for the U.S., and what he worked for, was a healthy economy, a world with renewable energy, and no dependence on fossil fuels," said Helena Perry, 67. "He worked for that his whole life." Mr. Perry was born Jan. 2, 1917, in Seattle while his father, John H. Perry, served as general counsel to the United Press and the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. The family moved to Tampa after World War I, then to Palm Beach in 1925. The elder Perry continued to prosper as his Western Newspaper Union increased its sales of stories, photographs and cartoons to many of the nation's weekly newspapers. Mr. Perry graduated from Yale University in 1939 and from Harvard Business School in 1940. At one time, he held a commercial pilot's license and was co-owner of a 2,600-acre farm in Kentucky. His father purchased the Jacksonville Journal in 1922 and later added two Pensacola newspapers and two Panama City newspapers. He added The Palm Beach Post, the Palm Beach Evening Times and the Palm Beach Daily News to the chain soon after World War II ended. The family bought a home in Palm Beach in 1946 while spending summers in Greenwich, Conn. After his father's death in 1952, Mr. Perry inherited the budding chain. He pioneered the use of cold type and computers in newspaper production, and designed a revolutionary engraving machine. One of his first major decisions as a newspaper owner was to sell the Jacksonville Journal in 1959 to the Florida Times-Union. Three years later, he acquired his mother's and brother's interests in Perry Newspapers at a cost of more than $1 million in cash and his holdings in Western Newspaper Union. He shunned the power and glamor associated with newspapering, preferring to concentrate his efforts on the production end. "I had set out to develop the automation of the newspaper industry," he once said. "When I achieved that, I could see it was growing beyond my wildest dreams and I sort of lost interest in it." In 1969, Mr. Perry sold his 27 newspapers for a reported $75 million to Cox Enterprises, which now owns 17 daily newspapers as well as TV stations, cable systems, auto auctions and other holdings. For more than 40 years, Mr. Perry espoused his National Dividend Plan to balance the federal budget, eliminate $200 billion deficits and pay every registered voter an annual dividend. Under the plan, all voters would share in and benefit from the free enterprise system. It called for a maximum 50 percent federal tax on corporate profits and the elimination of the personal income tax on corporate dividends. "It hit me that if we could divert part of the earnings of corporations directly to the electorate, it would have a tendency to cut off the demagogic appeals of the vote-getters — or buyers," he said. "In order to buy votes, they've been spending more money than we can afford." Mr. Perry branched into cable television and also poured his spirit and money into Perry Oceanographics, giving the world the machinery necessary to explore thousands of feet beneath the sea. He entered the submarine business after a close brush with a shark while spearfishing with his first wife, Jeanne, in the Bahamas in the mid-1950s. "I had speared a fish and just brought it in to shore when my wife ran up yelling about a shark that had followed me in," he recalled. "When I looked back, sure enough, there was a fin cutting through the water where I had been swimming. It got me thinking about building a small submersible that would allow a diver to hunt sharks safely." He progressed from fashioning a wooden, diesel-powered submarine that didn't work to becoming one of the world's most successful builders of submersible vehicles. Mr. Perry created the idea during World War II while serving in the Army Air Corps as a pilot ferrying DC-3 cargo planes and B-26 bombers from California to Hawaii and Guadalcanal. At one time, he was a member of a 15-man commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to prepare a national ocean program that led to the formation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He said he never got into the space race because "I couldn't compete without the government behind me." Even so, he found himself battling huge companies to build a deep-sea recovery vehicle for the Navy, which wanted a device to rescue sailors trapped in a disabled submarine. "The difference between them and me was that I was trying to develop a cost-effective underwater business," Mr. Perry once said. "When the Navy ran out of money for the project, I was the only one they could afford." There were moments when Mr. Perry had serious doubts that the project would work. The original Hydro-Lab had a serious flaw. Shortly after it was launched from a Riviera Beach laboratory in 1966 and docked on the ocean floor, it shot to the surface and disappeared. "Three or four days later we found it off Fort Pierce," he said. Subsequent design changes kept it on the bottom, where it belonged.
Published in The Palm Beach Post on May 17, 2006
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