Retired CEO Russ Perlich deserves more attention in the business community for receiving the Piper Trust Encore Career Prize. The arts and education communities should be focusing a spotlight on him, too. There are probably a million reasons his story should resonate in the Valley.
Unfortunately, Arizona, for all its gifts, assets and opportunities, is stuck in a dreary place of inertia and woe. We talk a lot the lack of business and political leadership with no interest in long-term vision and no patience for long-term goals. We lament there being so few Arizonans in places high and low doing the right things to address foundational cracks in the state. It’s difficult these days for bright lights like Perlich to pierce the darkness.
Perlich does exactly what we say we want of people who plant their flags in Arizona — to give back to the communities that give so much to them, to help sow seeds that advance a greater good. Lucky for us he and others like him aren’t looking for attention. They, as usual, are too busy working, too focused on doing what they know they can do.
Perlich, co-founder of Act one, is among an estimated 1 million people 50 and older in Maricopa County who may have the time, resources and experience to make a difference in encore careers. It’s a movement that the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust promotes as a way to address critical social needs in the region.
Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Encore.org, said older citizens represent untapped human capital that could be applied to significant problems. He likes a phrase he once heard from a psychologist who said the hallmark of successful development in later life is encapsulated with the phrase, “I am what survives of me.”
“It’s what we see in grandparents all the time,” Freedman said. “It’s what we so desperately need in society right now. Older people who are all about the well-being of the next generation and are passing on what they’ve learned in life in ways that will resonate. It’s very powerful to see someone like Russ who’s doing that and reaching so many young people.”
Perlich came to the state in the early 1970s to attend the University of Arizona. He stayed after earning a degree and started a business in Tucson. He was the rare CEO who didn’t make Arizona a stepping stone to other opportunities. Perlich made his home here and for 40 years he has quietly and purposefully done what he could to make it a place he wanted to live and raise his family.
Some of Perlich’s best work on the Arizona-improvement front came after he retired as CEO of highly successful Quadna, now based in Phoenix. In 2011, he and his wife Linda (Mac) put up seed money for Act One, a nonprofit that is one of the most creative answers in the state for addressing inequality in public education.
Act One ensures students in Title I schools are enriched by high-quality arts experience. Great things for young people and society come from the social and academic benefits those activities guarantee. By the end of this school year, more than 100,000 K-12 students will have participated in an Act One program.
Act One changes lives in Maricopa County. And for that the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust awarded Perlich the $50,000 Encore Career Prize on Nov. 5.
Perlich will use the money to speed up hiring an arts educator to help Act One do more for the students and schools it serves.
Perlich’s story isn’t flashy, but it is a bright light for those who love Arizona enough to work to help it reach its full potential.
Act One isn’t the quick, cheap fix for a broken public schools system and for devastating social inequity. But it is a well-thought out, targeted solution for a clear and present problem.
Perlich is a very good example of what an Arizonan with an extraordinary desire to do right for children and to make his home a better place can do. Where would we be, how far could we go, with more people like him?