LEWISTON — When Andrea Breau and Shaad Masood bought a little house on Webber Avenue five years ago, they found dusty boxes and trunks in the attic left behind by a family that no longer existed.

Masood said they contained “all sort of trophies,” lots of certificates, a World War I draft registration card, clothing and much, much more.

Glorianne “Glo” Perrier Sun Journal file photo

“We knew it was something important,” said the history-minded Breau, who figured “we can’t just throw this away.”

They wound up donating what they’d found to the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine in Lewiston.

Thanks to those boxes, and the collection’s archivists, the story of a remarkable French-Canadian family can still be told despite the 2015 death of the last of the four children raised by Philias and Alma Perrier, who built the home in a French neighborhood just before the Great Depression.

It’s a tale of determination, heartache, love, war and, especially, Olympic glory.

During a visit home in 1994, Glorianne “Glo” Perrier stopped by the Franco-American Collection to chat for what she thought would be about five minutes about her silver medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Her oral history recorded that day, almost an hour longer than she anticipated, provides the source of the information in this story that’s not credited to something or someone else. The boxes that Breau and Masood found helped flesh out details.

DENTING THE ALLEYWAY

Let’s start with, of all things, bowling.

In 1959, Glo Perrier, a 30-year-old Lewiston native and clerk for the military, enjoyed stepping in for missing players on teams competing at a duckpin lane during off-hours in Washington, D.C.

Because she subbed, she could bowl for free, her longtime friend Deborah Magee said last week.

For the Perriers, who never had much money, “their favorite four-letter word was F-R-E-E,” Magee recalled with a laugh.

At the alley in the nation’s capital, Perrier would toss the softball-sized bowling ball toward the pins so it would crash down on the alleyway, almost hitting the pins on the fly.

“Instead of rolling it, I would pitch it a few inches before the pins – and that would make a real good whack,” Perrier said.

The establishment’s owner, though, wasn’t too keen about her technique.

“You can’t do that!” he told her, complaining to friend Bill Havens that “she’s wrecking my bowling alley.”

He asked his pal to “see if you can find another sport that she might get interested in,” Havens’ son Frank told the Los Angeles Times long after.

Nobody could have imagined that just a year later, Perrier would be competing in the Rome Olympics in kayaking. Four years after that, during the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, the 35-year-old Perrier teamed up with 15-year-old Francine Fox to win a silver medal in the sport.

It was a long journey for the Lewiston High School graduate who “didn’t go for sports” during her time at Holy Cross grammar school, where they had nothing for girl athletes, or at the high school, where she only really wanted to play baseball but couldn’t participate.

Perrier is one of two Lewiston natives known to have won medals at the Olympics. The other, Bob Legendre, captured a third-place bronze in the pentathlon in the 1924 games in Paris.

TAKING TO THE WATER

Taking the suggestion of the bowling alley’s owner, Frank Havens, an Olympic medal winner, asked Perrier if she’d be interested in canoeing.

She told him no.

“I had never been in a boat in my life,” she said, and “was not interested.”

But Havens persisted and finally one spring Sunday, she agreed to accompany him to the lovely Washington Canoe Club, a wooden boat house beneath the Key Bridge over the Potomac River in Georgetown, home to a cadre of committed canoeists that has included champion rowers since before World War II.

Washington Canoe Club. Library of Congress

At riverside, Havens convinced Perrier to clamber into a double kayak. Her job was just to sit there as he paddled, holding her blade out to skim the water and provide balance.

When they returned to shore, Havens hustled her into a single instead.

“As I put one foot in the boat, I went into the water,” Perrier remembered. “That kind of woke me up and made me a little mad.”

Havens pointed to a teenage girl nearby “paddling as if the river were hers.”

And Perrier thought, “If she can paddle, why can’t I?”

She proceeded to fall into the water in front of the dock 21 straight times and went home without ever paddling a single stroke.

The caption on the back of a print at USM’s Franco-American Collection reads “Glorianne Perrier 1960 U.S. National K-1 Champion (Kayak) leaving the boat house with a kayak, at the Washington Canoe Club, Washington, D.C.” Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Perrier said the club figured she’d never return. But she did, over and over.

By June, Havens asked if she’d be willing to come to a race in Philadelphia.

“Not me! I can’t even stay in the boat!” Perrier answered.

But Havens explained that if she competed at all, the club could get a single point in that women’s competition, and it might propel the team to an overall victory.

“Oh, no, oh, no, oh, no!” she answered, but eventually agreed to try.

“To make the story short,” Perrier said, “I flipped in the river before the race started.”

Figuring the singles race was a lost cause, they put her in a double instead, where she hung on long enough to avoid flipping the boat in the Schuylkill River until after it crossed the finish line.

It says something about her persistence that just a year later, she made the American Olympic team to compete in Rome on Lake Gandolfo, near the pope’s summer home.

GETTING READY FOR TOKYO

Glorianne Perrier after the Rome Olympics. Lewiston Evening Journal

Perrier arrived in Italy with a boat that had been used in the 1956 games, ready for the singles competition.

When the Russians saw the boat, they knew Perrier had no chance. Advances in boatmaking since the most recent Olympics ensured that the Germans and Russians would dominate the kayak event in Rome.

And, accordingly, Perrier got clobbered, easily eliminated in the first round.

One of the Germans, silver medalist Ingrid Hartmann, offered to help her prepare for the next games in Tokyo. Her advice: forget the singles.

“Here you are, 31 years old,” Hartmann told her. “You’ve never been in a boat” and don’t have the requisite sense of balance.

“It takes a little monkey to paddle these boats ‘cause they are narrow,” Perrier remembered hearing from her German friend.

Hartmann advised Perrier to find a young partner and try the doubles competition instead.

Perrier wound up with a 12-year-old who frequented the Washington club, Francine Fox.

Perrier recalled they made “a terrific team,” meeting every day for practice on the Potomac River after she got out of work and Fox got out of high school. They’d head out onto the water at 5 p.m.

“We would jump in the boat, but see, it was dark. It would get dark so we would train at night,” she said. “In the dark, my ears made it better. When our blades went into the water as one, we know we’re doing better and better.”

Fox “was very smart,” Perrier said, while the older partner was stronger, her right arm especially, the result of years of pitching for successful softball teams in Washington and from bowling.

The pair practiced and raced constantly from soon after the Rome games until it was time to head to Tokyo, always wary that sickness or an injury could derail their hopes.

“It really takes four years,” Perrier said. “You have to really work.”

They aimed to break the two-minute mark in the 500-meter race, initially something they were six seconds behind. But month after month, they inched closer.

“I noticed that I was trying so hard that right after the 500 meters mark, after the last stroke, I did not know where I was. It was just like unconscious,” Perrier said. “You are working so hard it hurt there.”

But, she said, when athletes are working hard, they don’t care about the pain. Instead, they shove aside the hurt and try it again.

The U.S. Olympic team during the opening ceremony of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. University of Southern Maine’s Franco-American Collection

THE TOKYO OLYMPICS, 1964

Nobody expected much from the American rowing team, but Perrier and Fox got a lot of attention anyway – especially the 15-year-old.

Calling her “a peachcake,” sportswriter Shirley Povich in The Boston Globe, said Fox caused a stir in the Olympic Village “with, well, her looks.”

Francine Fox, shown in her 1965 Western High School yearbook in Washington, D.C.

“She is a close-cropped, honey blonde who has stopped bicycle traffic in the international colony of the Olympics, and the boys have come running,” Povich said.

He said that Perrier and Fox have “something of a mother-daughter age spread” that delivered them the U.S. championship in the double kayak event to secure their place in Tokyo.

Perrier described the medal-winning race.

She said that in European competitions, the starting judge would say, “Are you ready?” and then fire a gun three seconds later. But the standard practice was for everybody to take off as soon as they heard the word “are.”

At the Olympics in 1964, however, officials agreed the race should begin with the gunshot.

On “a dark, dreary day” in October, the boats lined up for the finals, with Perrier and Fox in lane four and the Germans in lane nine, the furthest away.

Perrier said she told Fox not to start until the gunshot, but when the judge said “are,” everybody else took off except the German duo.

They all got called back to the starting line.

“Now this is where I lost the gold,” Perrier said.

She said the Germans had timed their coach, who was serving as the starter, and knew exactly when to spring off the line, a little bit of an advantage.

Glorianne Perrier and Francine Fox at the Washington Canoe Club after their 1964 Olympic performance in Tokyo. Washington Canoe Club

Even so, Perrier thought she’d crossed the finish slightly ahead, beating the two-minute mark. She quickly learned that the Germans got across less than a second ahead.

The Russians protested that the German team had cheated, which would have eliminated them if the judges had agreed. Perrier said she thought it was cheating, too, but that’s not how the ruling went so she and Fox earned a silver medal for second place.

United Press International, a wire service, said in its report on the race that “the lightly regarded American girl canoeists stunned European veterans” by winning both the silver and bronze medals in the race, an outcome “as unexpected as a 10-game winning streak by New York’s baseball Mets.”

The American rowing coach, Eric Feicht, said the country only had “12 girl Olympic prospect paddlers” and two of them “beat the rest of the world except the talented German girls.”

Snagging a silver medal “was like winning a gold,” Perrier said, “because they never, ever, expected the United States” to win anything.

“Hey, a 15-year-old and 35-year-old woman who had never been in a boat until the age of 30? That was spectacular.”

AFTER TOKYO

Magee, the longtime friend, said she met Perrier in the early 1970s when she tried for a time to become a kayaker.

She said she’d heard of Perrier and expected her to be “some petite little blond thing” but when the Olympian pushed through a door at the canoe club she saw instead “a walking mountain of a person,” with broad shoulders and a narrow waist.

Magee said she realized in an instant that Perrier, who was in outstanding shape, “could break me like a toothpick.”

Fortunately, she soon learned that Perrier was as kind, thoughtful and straightforward as anyone could imagine.

“She was the real deal,” Magee said, “a champion in every respect.”

The two wound up sharing a house in Alabama for decades, playing with their beloved basset hounds and traveling often, including cross-country journeys on Harley-Davidson motorcycles that Perrier began riding at age 73.

Magee said that Perrier, who graduated from Lewiston High in 1949, worked a bit in a mill and a shoe shop but thought “none of this was particularly good for her.”

When she heard the federal government needed clerks, Perrier ignored family pleas to stay in Lewiston and moved to Washington, D.C., taking a job at the bottom of the pay scale and staying at the YMCA until she could move on to a boarding house, Magee said.

Soon, though, the frugal Perrier had a little apartment and bought a car within a year. Ultimately, Magee said, she even bought a small airplane “that looked like something Snoopy would have flown” and learned to fly. She sold it so she could afford to go to Rome for the Olympics.

Perrier coached for about a decade after her silver medal but continued to work for the U.S. Army as a secretary until her retirement in 1983.

She kept in touch with the rowing community but she also moved on, Magee said, believing that there are phases in life and that she’d done what she could in the sport.

Every Oct. 22, the anniversary of their win, she and Fox would exchange greetings, Magee said, and a couple of years before Perrier died in 2015, they got together, along with fellow Olympic rower Marcia Jones Smoke, for a lunch in Alabama to reminisce.

The Olympic duo had never been buddies, Magee said, because of the age difference. But they knew that they’d won that medal because each offered something crucial to victory, with Perrier bringing the strength and Fox “a natural, beautiful stroke and wonderful balance.”

Philias and Alma Perrier outside their Webber Avenue home in Lewiston around 1935 with sons Marcel and Conrad and daughters Therese and Glo, the youngest. Submitted photo

THE PERRIERS IN LEWISTON

Perrier grew up in a small house at 188 Webber Ave. in a devout Catholic family.

Her father, Philias, worked as a furniture shipper for the Atherton Furniture Store on Lisbon Street. Her mother, the former Alma Gosselin, worked in the mills.

The pair had four children: Therese, Conrad, Marcel and Glo, the youngest, born in 1929.

For Glo Perrier, Marcel, her oldest brother, was her idol growing up. “She absolutely worshiped and adored him,” Magee said, because he was so bright and engaging, the kid who organized everything and took charge.

One day in 1938, he got a group of neighborhood children together, along with Glo, and they took a taxi to a beach on Taylor Pond in Auburn to cool off and have fun.

It proved tragic when, overwhelmed by the wake of a circling motorboat, Marcel drowned at age 13.

A story in the Aug. 1, 1938 Lewiston Daily Sun about the drowning of Marcel Perrier in Taylor Pond.

Her other brother, Conrad, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, then took a job at the shipyard in Bath.

Recalled to duty during the Korean War, he served aboard the U.S.S. Essex aircraft carrier. After a bad accident, Conrad was on deck trying to help when a plane landed without having first cleared its guns, Magee said. It sprayed bullets into the backs of five soldiers.

Conrad wound up paralyzed from the waist down, permanently putting him in a wheelchair until his death in 2007.

The government gave him money for a properly equipped house which the family used for a winter home in Florida. They also rehabbed the Webber Avenue home so Conrad could live on the first floor unhindered.

His sister Therese, a telephone operator, cared for her brother and, in later years, also for her French-speaking mother, who had been left bedridden after a stroke. Glo Perrier also spent the final year in Lewiston with her ailing mother, Magee said.

At age 85, Glo Perrier died in Alabama on March 7, 2015. Therese followed five months later in Lewiston.

The entire family is buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery on Switzerland Road.

The Olympian never got her due in her hometown, where her victory was noted on the sports page, but few remembered it and nobody appears to have detailed anything about it.

But in the archives of the Franco collection, there are boxes that preserve some of her t-shirts, including a few bearing Olympic logos, as well as mementos she picked up along the way, trophies she won and even the white case that likely once held her silver medal.

Magee said Perrier’s kayak from the Tokyo games hangs on a wall at her old home in Huntsville, Alabama.

The location of Perrier’s silver medal remains a mystery.

Eidie Breau-Masood opens a case that most likely contained the silver medal won by Glorianne “Glo” Perrier that was discovered while going through boxes of items her parents found in the house they bought in Lewiston that was once home to the Olympic rower. Eidie and her parents visited USM’s Franco-American Collection at the Lewiston-Auburn campus Thursday afternoon to check out the items. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal


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