Humble life ended with noble bequest
By Eloise Aguiar
In the 40 years she lived in Hawai'i, Rose Perenin always walked or took the bus to work and to outings from her studio apartment on the slopes of Punchbowl.
She shopped at Goodwill for clothing and rarely spent money except to further the education of the adults she taught to read and write as a volunteer with Hawaii Literacy.
"She was raised to be terribly thrifty," said friend Marcia Wood.
So when Perenin died last year at age 95, many people were shocked to learn that she had created and endowed a foundation that is worth $6.2 million.
"She was a Berkeley grad, a really smart woman," said Wood. But also "a very odd and interesting woman, very strong-willed ... who knew that she wanted to live a very simple life," Wood said.
Now Perenin's simple life will benefit hundreds and maybe thousands of people in Hawai'i and California through the California-based Rose Perenin Foundation, named for her mother.
Hawaii Literacy received a $325,000 matching grant last month, the largest ever for the nonprofit.
And Hawai'i will receive more from the foundation, said Rudy Gillard, one of its directors and a friend of Perenin.
"The estate is considerable, and we're in the wonderful situation to give enough money away to make a difference," Gillard said.
Other organizations in Hawai'i have benefited from the foundation, among them the Honolulu Opera Theatre, the Honolulu Symphony and Bishop Museum, Gillard said. However, because the foundation is still trying to determine its mission statement, it is not accepting applications for grants, he said.
Learning about Perenin's wealth was a shock to everyone at Hawaii Literacy, said Katy Chen, executive director of the organization, which offers free tutoring in reading and writing for adults and children.
"She was a woman everyone thought was of modest means," Chen said, adding that Perenin also made a yearly contribution to the organization.
Seed money for the foundation came to Perenin unexpectedly.
When her mother died in 1981, Perenin was left with the task of cleaning out her home about 15 feet from a railroad track in Fortuna, Calif.
Inside, she found $600,000 worth of certificates in blue-chip stocks, Gillard said from his home in California.
She gave away about half of it and kept the rest, he said. Instead of moving into a bigger apartment or indulging in air conditioning or other comforts, she maintained her frugal lifestyle, living on her retirement pension from the U.S. Forest Service.
Later she used the money to set up the foundation, Gillard said. And she steered its growth herself.
"She resisted all our attempts to get her to hire a money manager," Gillard said, and "did 10 times better than anyone (else) could have."
Perenin was born in Lolita, Calif., on Jan. 24, 1908, to Frank and Rose Perenin, Gillard said. Her father was a gold-mining engineer who also started a dairy farm, which was condemned to build a freeway that bypassed Fortuna, the town where they lived.
Perenin graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a major in French and minor in Spanish education. She spoke fluent French. She was accepted to a master's program at Mills College but had to drop out and get a job during the Depression in the 1930s.
She landed a secretary/technical position at Berkeley to the director of The Pacific Entomological Survey, which was based at Bishop Museum. But because of budget cuts, that job lasted only 17 months. In a letter of recommendation for her, the director stated that if money were available he would have asked her to come to the Islands.
Instead she found a position with the U.S. Forest Service that brought her to Hawai'i in 1963 when the organization's first branch opened here. As the assistant to the director, she organized the office.
She retired from the Forest Service in 1971 and began volunteering with Hawaii Literacy in 1981.
Heidi Byrne, the adult literacy program manager who worked directly with Perenin, said she taught longer than most tutors. Even those who last the longest stay only five to 10 years.
And Perenin would work with 10 students at a time when most tutors took only one, according to Byrne, who said Perenin developed close relationships with her students.
"She went to sumo matches with them, to graduations, dinners and other family affairs," she said. "They loved her, I think because of her devotion and eagerness to help them."
Perenin taught students right up until her death in August 2003. Among her students were the parents of Grace Liang Chen, who lived in the same building as Perenin.
Lillian Liang, 70, and her husband, Zhiqing, 75, were Perenin's students for about three years, said Chen. Lillian would take food to Perenin almost every day and was a frequent visitor, so she was saddened by her friend's death, Chen said.
Learning to speak the language had given her Chinese immigrant parents the freedom to move about in the community, she said.
"If not speaking English, it's just like blind and deaf," Chen said. "After they learn, they can go out shopping, communicate."
Chen said Perenin led a simple life, and the Liangs would take Perenin places when they could. So when they found out about her wealth they were surprised.
Perenin did indulge in cultural pursuits, friends said. She was known to attend the opera, the symphony and the Honolulu Academy of Arts.
Then there were a few luxuries. She got her hair done weekly and took yearly trips to the Mainland and an occasional trip to France after discovering she had relatives there. In her last years, Perenin got a monthly massage for her aching bones.
Wood said she was one of the few people who knew that Perenin had inherited money but Perenin insisted that she wouldn't change the way she lived because of it.
Wood used to pick up Perenin for lunch and errands every couple of months. Occasionally she tried to persuade Perenin to indulge herself but was rarely successful. Of the purchases she could remember, Wood said Perenin had bought a New York Times crossword puzzle dictionary and a book on American slang to use when she tutored her students.
In deciding to award a grant to Hawaii Literacy, the foundation took into account Perenin's 22-year volunteer service to the program and her love for the Islands, said Gillard.
"Rose said the turning point in her life came as she stepped off the boat in Honolulu," he said. "The warm breeze enveloped her and at that point she felt she found her true home."
Seen at http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2004/Sep/05/ln/ln01a.html
Cross-posted to abouthawaii