With its 75th birthday approaching, the Colorado Author's League is the state's oldest organization dedicated to writers and writing.
In that span, CAL has bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award on just three members: the late poet Lois Beebe Hayna, and two famous novelists, suspense writer Clive Cussler and Boulder's Margaret Coel, best known for her biography of Arapaho Indian Chief Niwot and the Wind River mystery series.
Come May 5, a fourth name will be added to their ranks: former teacher Phyllis Perry of Boulder, author of 87 books for both adults and children.
"It was a surprise," says Perry, 83. "I didn't even know I had been under consideration when (CAL board president) Denny Dressman phoned to say 'The committee has chosen you.' That was right after the Academy Awards, when they announced the wrong winner(for best picture), so I sort of wondered if the next day the phone wouldn't ring and they'd say, 'Whoops, sorry.'"
It didn't, and they didn't.
Perry may never have been a household name or a New York Times-bestselling author, but she exemplifies dedication and a commitment to education.
"Almost all of her books are aimed at helping young readers learn about the world around them," Dressman says. "That's what stands out about Phyllis's writing: Her books all contribute to growth. She has won 10 CAL writing awards since joining CAL in 1998. She represents what CAL is all about."
Perry grew up in the small mining town of Grass Valley in the northern Sierra Nevada of California. She began writing her first stories and poems in eighth grade.
"But mostly at that point I was a reader," she says. "I was very well-known at the library."
After graduating from the University of California Berkeley with a degree in English, Perry taught elementary school while pursuing a master's degree at California State University San Francisco. She and her husband then moved to Orange County, where she taught junior college students and wrote her master's thesis at California State University Long Beach.
After the couple and their two children moved to Boulder in 1967, she earned a doctorate in education from the University of Colorado and began teaching elementary school, eventually becoming an administrator and principal.
Perry published her first book for kids, "Spiders," in 1964.
"I couldn't find anything for little kids about spiders, and of course they were fascinated by them," she says. "Moths, butterflies, snails, frogs, you name it, I was out there with my two little girls trying to catch them."
She turned their explorations into successive volumes for Minnesota publisher T. S. Denison, including "Let's Look at Frogs," "A Dozen Swimmers" and "A Trip Through the Zoo."
As she and her family began to travel their new home state of Colorado, she turned their explorations into lessons for her third-grade students, about everything from gold mining to the Great Sand Dunes. Eventually, she accumulated about 70 and approached the director of elementary education in the Boulder Valley School District to inquire about having copies made for other teachers.
"He said, 'Not a good idea. If I start printing teachers' lessons, that's all I'm going to be doing,'" Perry recalls. "I thought, well, if I can't give it away, maybe I can sell it."
That she did, to Boulder's Pruett Publishing, which brought out an edition with a simple spiral binding in 1976. When the first printing of "A Look at Colorado" (later known as "A Kids' Look at Colorado") sold out, Pruett published a hardcover edition.
Perry published dozens of nonfiction books for children and books for teachers before her career took a turn in 2003 with the publication of her first chapter book for children, "Mr. Crumb's Secret."
The book featured Fribblemouse, a mouse "who gets really interested in anything he sees or hears." When Mr. Crumb puts up an antenna for his new amateur radio hobby, the mouse uses his library skills to sleuth out what's going on. After reading only the first definition of antennae — insect feelers — the mouse gets the wrong idea and thinks Mr. Crumb has taken up insect collecting. Then he mistakes the name Marconi — as in the Italian inventor Guglielmo, the inventor of radio — for "macaroni" and believes Mr. Crumb has taken up cooking.
"To this day it's the favorite of my books," Perry says.
She went on to feature Fribblemouse in three more research adventures, in which he makes use of the "Guinness Book of World Records," newspapers, telephone books, dictionaries, encyclopedias and other resources to teach basic research skills to third and fourth graders.
"A little neighbor girl read Fribblemouse last year and she said it was an 'old-fashioned' book," Perry says. "When I asked why, she said, 'You know, it doesn't go to Google.'"
If that's old-fashioned, Perry doesn't mind the label. As helpful as the internet can be to students, she is concerned that it has reduced students' abilities to conduct careful research and develop still-valuable library skills.
"I don't think we realize what we are doing. I love computers, but when doing research, you can't just say you read it on Google and it's true," she says.
She's also alarmed that most states no longer require students to learn cursive writing skills. She was surprised recently when a young staff member of a local recreation center replied to a letter she'd written in cursive.
"The girl called to say thank you, and that she couldn't read my letter," Perry says. "I keep thinking, 'What are we teaching that's so much more important than writing?' I haven't found the answer, but I'm not a fan."
Perry published her first general-interest book for adults, "It Happened in Rocky Mountain National Park," in 2006, opening a new chapter late in her career. She submitted "Famous Faces and Places of Colorado" only to have publishers ask for variations on the theme, which resulted in 2011's "Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Colorado History" and "Bold Women in Colorado History" in 2012. Her original idea finally saw print in 2015 as "Colorado Vanguards: Historic Trailblazers & Their Local Legends."
"I went from famous people to jerks to women, and finally back to what I originally had in mind," she says, laughing.
Her latest book, a biography of pioneering California architect Julia Morgan, will be published later this year by Cardinal Publishing Group.
Perry gives partial credit for her career to six local women authors in her writing group, which met twice a month for 22 years to critique each other's writing, until last year.
"I am dealing with macular degeneration and while I can still work at a computer screen, I can't read ordinary manuscript print any more," she says. "But we still get together every three months."
Thrilled as she is to receive CAL's recognition, Perry says she is no less honored that all six members of the group, including one who now lives out of state, plan to be there on May 5 when she receives the award.
"I can't tell you how much it pleases me that all seven of us will be there," she says.
If you are a local writer and have a book coming out, please let Clay Evans know by emailing him at email@example.com.