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Mary Perry, 88; fitness advocate encouraged seniors to remain active

Mrs. Perry coached sports in Hopedale and taught exercise classes in New Hampshire and Arizona.

Mrs. Perry coached sports in Hopedale and taught exercise classes in New Hampshire and Arizona.

A devoted fitness pioneer, Mary Perry taught physical education and coached sports in Hopedale for 25 years, then embarked on a national career as an aerobics instructor, filling classes with joyous optimism well into her 70s and inspiring many older participants with her tireless energy.

“Age to her was a state of mind,” said her daughter, Anne of New London, N.H. “And she always looked younger than her age.”

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During the keynote address at a fitness conference in Wisconsin in 1987, Mrs. Perry declared: “Older people can do more than they’re given credit for, and they don’t like to be talked down to.”

Mrs. Perry, who in later years also traveled extensively, died in her sleep of congestive heart failure Oct. 3 in Woodcrest Village in New London, N.H. She was 88.

“She was ahead of her time,” said her son, Joe of Duxbury, the lead guitarist in the band Aerosmith. “She would spread the message that you could stay active when you got older. And she was also a free thinker. She’d talk about Stephen Hawking and read all these books about quantum physics. She was knowledgeable about a lot of subjects.”

When Mrs. Perry retired from her teaching in Hopedale, she moved to Sedona, Ariz., where she lived for nearly 20 years. Her aerobics career flourished there before she returned to New England to teach aerobics at the Mountainside Racquet and Fitness Center in New London until she was in her mid-70s.

Julie Morse, one of her later students, said Mrs. Perry would joke: “If I die in class, then just step over me.”

A first-generation American of Italian descent, Mrs. Perry was born Mary Ursillo in Lawrence and married Anthony Perry of Lowell in 1948.

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Sargent College in Boston and received a master’s in physical education from Springfield College.

Her teaching career began in the Manchester, N.H., school system before she switched to Hopedale, where she also coached a variety of sports. Her 1966 field hockey team went undefeated.

“She was always patient and kind and devoted to her students,” said Lynda Sessa, who graduated in 1978 from Hopedale High School. “I learned so much from her and to this day exercise is a big part of my life.”

After Mrs. Perry’s husband died in 1975, she spent time at the family’s home at Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire, and then felt the need to travel.

Her son Joe stepped in and bought her a Mercedes-Benz.

“I surprised her with it one afternoon,” he said. “I pointed to the car and said, ‘This is yours.’ She put 280,000 miles on it.”

Mrs. Perry ended up in Sedona and became associated with Dance Slimnastics, a company that later was called The Fitness Firm, which made exercise videos. She taught classes for the company and made three videos of her own under the name the Mary Perry Project, which she adapted from her son’s side band, the Joe Perry Project.

With her dog, Lady, she drove to campgrounds across the country to sell DVDs and encourage campers to exercise.

“My life has been improved 100 percent since I started aerobics,” she said in American Adventure magazine in 1988. “Whether joining a fitness program, golfing, swimming, or just taking a brisk walk every day, regular exercise is an essential part of healthy living and being.”

Mrs. Perry had a “gypsy soul,” said her daughter, who lived with her for a while in Sedona while studying to become a therapeutic bodyworker, and now has a practice in New London.

Mrs. Perry also went to Florida to swim with dolphins and took a trip to Alaska. She taught fitness on a cruise ship with Royal Caribbean Cruises from San Juan to Lisbon in 1988. After turning 80, she wanted to go to Antarctica, but her children suggested she reconsider, given the challenges of such a trip.

In 1996, because she wanted to be close to her family, Mrs. Perry returned to New England.

She began teaching aerobics in New London before handing off her classes to instructors Heidi Leighton and Shelby Blunt, but she continued to attend classes often and stood in the back for moral support.

In addition to her daughter and son, Mrs. Perry leaves four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Family and friends plan to hold a celebration of her life, which will be announced.

Mrs. Perry’s son said he was particularly indebted to her because she helped pay some of the rent on Aerosmith’s communal apartment on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue, where the band first lived.

“She’d also send me $10 a week so I’d at least be able to get one good meal a week,” he recalled.

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