By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
George Pera, a community leader and former senior pastor, died on Jan. 17. He was 93.
Pera garnered a reputation throughout Alexandria as a man with a philanthropic heart, strong sense of spirituality and desire to serve his community. Many community members, some of whom had seen Pera recently, shared fond memories of the Alexandria Living Legend upon hearing news of his passing.
Sandra Calhoun, who worked as director of seniors’ ministries at Westminster Presbyterian Church with Pera, stated that his mind was sharp right until the end.
“I had lunch with him about a month before he died. His mind was just great and his body was frail, but he still kept up,” Calhoun said.
Many people admired Pera for his blend of intelligence and integrity. Jane Ring, a close friend and active member with Westminster, said Pera was a joy to be around.
“Those years working at the church were wonderful because he was such a marvelous person and really a genius,” Ring said. “… The world is better because George Pera lived in it for 93 years.”
Pera was born on Dec. 16, 1929 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to A. George Pera and Mary Ely Pera. After graduating from Peabody High School, Pera attended the University of Pittsburgh, matriculated at Princeton Theological Seminary and studied at New York University. He holds three honorary degrees as a doctor of divinity, doctor of humane letters and doctor of literature.
Shortly after school, he began his career in ministry as a chaplain at Ohio State University and New York University. He then worked as associate pastor and senior pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church in Greenwich, Connecticut in the 1960s to 1977; senior pastor of the American Church in London, England from 1977 to 1980; and senior pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria between 1980 and 1995.
Raised by a Presbyterian father and Roman-Catholic mother, it was inculcated in Pera at an early age that religion went hand in hand with serving the community. He articulated this in his Living Legends profile, saying he believed that God calls humans to “make human life more human” in any profession he or she chooses.
“I felt that the church, as I observed it growing up, gave a person a unique opportunity to do that. I believe the church is in the world to serve the world. I felt that to know the world I had to get out in it,” Pera said.
Although Pera technically retired from Westminster in the mid-90s, he was subsequently named PastorEmeritus and invited to be a guest preacher at the American Church in Paris while on sabbatical. He also served as interim pastor at the Calvary Presbyterian Church of Alexandria.
Calhoun said that Pera came to Westminster with “a wonderful world view” and loved to travel; he would organize trips to places across the globe, such as England, Morocco and Scotland.
During the latter trip, the group approached St Andrews – one of the jewels of golf and lovingly referred to as “The Old Course” – but discovered that only members were allowed inside. Pera, who loved both a challenge and introducing himself to others, decided to find a workaround.
“He got back on the bus and said, ‘Well, I got in!’ He just charms people,” Calhoun said.
According to Calhoun, Pera was quite the character. He was a “snappy dresser” who liked wearing bright colored or patterned outfits, and was very well read, often introducing current events and literature in his sermons.
Ring praised his fervent interest in and pulse on world events.
“His sermons always related to what was going on in the world around us,” Ring said. “Indeed, the sexton had to change the title of the sermon three times one week because there were so many important things happening around us. He ditched the sermon he had prepared and talked about [the] thing of concern to the congregation.”
Pera had a quick-witted sense of humor, too. After retiring, he handed out a “business card” that said “bon vivant,” which means “one who lives well” in French. Diane Charles, former ALIVE! executive director and a longtime friend, said his comedic side is one of the things she’ll miss the most.
“Because he never seemed to take himself too seriously, it drew people to him to get his insight, perspective and knowledge on so many issues of importance to our community,” Charles said.
But his amusing outer quirks were not to outdo his compassionate inner disposition. When one Westminster family was stuck in Colorado for several months after their son had a skiing accident, Pera was quick to offer support in the form of housing, food and any other needed services.
“Within an hour [they] heard from George. He said, ‘Whatever you need, we’ll provide it. We’ll help,’” Calhoun said. “… He was that kind of person, [offering] whatever you need.”
Rev. Larry Hayward, who has been senior pastor at Westminster since 2004, had “a long collaborative and collegial” relationship with Pera since moving to the area. Pera acted as a mentor of sorts to Hayward by supporting him in his ministry, and a spiritual guide to the Westminster community as a whole through his leadership.
“[His involvement] continued into his retirement and even in recent years. He’s just been so committed to the hospital and Agenda Alexandria and senior services and other things that he’s been on, and he’s been great,” Hayward said.
Pera was very civically engaged, having been involved with a variety of organizations like Senior Services of Alexandria, Elder Crafters of Alexandria, the Steering Committee of the Call to Community, the Inova Alexandria Hospital Foundation and Agenda Alexandria, a forum for discussing local issues. In 2009 he was named a “Living Legend” of Alexandria for his myriad contributions to the city.
Mary Myers, former executive director of the Inova Alexandria Hospital Foundation, knew Pera well from his time serving on the foundation’s Board of Trustees. She said that the hospital was fortunate to have had Pera’s service for many years.
“He valued philanthropy and understood the hospital’s critical importance to the people of Alexandria,” Myers said. “And he could also inspire others to feel the same way. His caring and compassionate spirit showed itself on countless occasions. He was just a great gentleman.”
Pera was dedicated to his wife Nancy, whom he met in New York City on a blind date. They wed on New Year’s Eve in 1959 and were married for 58 years until her death in 2017.
Calhoun said Pera and his wife complemented each other beautifully. Pera was outspoken and unafraid of controversy, and Nancy often balanced him out in her response.
“At times Nancy would say, ‘Oh George.’ I can still hear her saying, ‘Oh, George,’” Calhoun recalled, laughing.
Whether he was leading sermons or spending time with friends and family, Pera was a force. His feisty yet generous spirit will be long remembered, Hayward noted.
“He obviously aged, but never lost his mental acuity, and just remained a bundle of energy whenever you were around him. I always had delightful times with him whenever we were together. And sometimes we were together at community events, sometimes at church events, sometimes just having lunch together,” Hayward said.
Pera is survived by his sister Mary Goodwin, nephew David Goodwin, daughter Tracey Sanders, son David Pera and granddaughter Hope Sanders. A memorial service, which can be viewed virtually or in person, will be held at 2 p.m. on Feb. 15 at Westminster Presbyterian Church. A private interment service will take place in the memorial garden at the First Presbyterian Church of Greenwich at a later date.