A Sit-Down with Audy Perry of Heritage Farm Foundation

As Part of the Heroes of Change Podcast

Jeremy Turner, Founder and Managing Director of EPIC Mission:

Hey, there. Thank you for joining us for this episode of the Heroes of Change podcast from EPIC Mission. My name’s Jeremy Turner and I’ll be your host. With this podcast, we’re seeking to highlight the trials, victories, and applied wisdom of our community change agents, unsung heroes, and those who empower them to be the change across Appalachia and beyond. We seek to inspire and equip everyday heroes, just like you to take on our greatest challenges because together, we are the change. I’m thrilled to have my friend, Audy Perry join us today, and we’re going to get into history a bit. The first one we read is his bio and then we’ll jump in and hear a little bit more about Audy. So, Audy Perry Jr. serves as the executive director of the Heritage Farm Foundation, which operates West Virginia’s first Smithsonian affiliate. The Heritage Farm Museum and Village in Huntington was established by his parents, A. Michael and Henriella Perry. The award winning Heritage Farm strives to share Appalachia’s proud, rugged past in ways that inspire an emboldened, bright, and vibrant future. Audy co-authored a book on his late father based on his life at the farm titled Faith Family, Friends, and Farm Stories Of and From Heritage Farm Museum and Village prior to his current role at Heritage Farm. Audy practiced law for over 18 years, advising clients on matters involving estate planning, trusts, charitable giving, business succession planning, project financing, and real estate.

Well, I went on, so Audy, everyone’s got a bio.

Audy Perry, Executive Director of the Heritage Farm Foundation

Okay.

Jeremy Turner:

But I also believe that everyone’s got a story that goes beyond the black and white that we see written about them or for them or by them. So if you would take a minute and tell us about you – Who are you? What’s your story?

Audy Perry:

Well, I’m a man who loves God; the place where God placed me is this beautiful place we call Appalachia. As you grow up, you don’t realize there’s anything different about the way you grow up. It’s normal to you. But now as an adult, as I look back, there was a gift when I was two, my parents moved to the country, so to speak. And we moved into a burned down log cabin and had one strand of electricity and a potbelly stove for heat. And they modified that as we went along. I was at the beginning of their journey. And that little log cabin sparked an appreciation and an admiration and an inquisitiveness in my parents for Appalachia. How come we never learned about this in school? Who were these people and why did they come here? And then like most passions that got way out of hand after that; 30 buildings and 800-acres and all those years later. But the part that I think is unique for how I grew up wasn’t about buildings and animals and all those things that would seem to be about me from that bio. The thing I noticed, it was a gift to me, is I grew up at the nexus of two different worlds. Now, both these worlds exist within Appalachia, but they rarely meet. They rarely intersect, unfortunately. And what I mean by that is because dad was a lawyer and then a banker and then an executive, I met all his amazing, brilliant business friends. Doctors, lawyers, politicians, senators, governors, all those amazing people that were his friends. But I also met his friends who worked at the farm; laborers, men who bailed hay, men who built many of the buildings, women who would come and help as they constructed their dream of creating an Appalachian village. And as a kid, you don’t see that the people you met this morning, probably never meet the people you met that afternoon. They live in two different worlds and the two different worlds, even though they’re a mile apart physically, the distance between South side and German Ridge is not that far. But in some ways it is, and you know what, I as an adult realize both those groups are amazing people, but they either misunderstand or misinterpret each other. You know, one assumes the other one’s just going to take advantage of him. And the other one may assume that there’s nothing to offer. I was just given a gift cause I saw they’re both amazing and they need each other. And that’s the problem; that’s why most of our struggles in Appalachia are because there’s parts that don’t intersect often enough. 

Dad received that gift, because he’d get up and go work with the fellows that put together a building or taking care of cattle and really work with those men and women “to how can we build like they did in 1850?” And then he changes clothes and goes to talk about banking and law and politics. And to him it was seamless because all those people were incredible. One of my favorite examples, and I got a lot of them, I mean, as we’re sitting here talking, all these faces pop up in my head that the world would deem uneducated. I use this as an example now, both dad and myself and our family, the world would deem educated. You know, we got letters after our name and that’s a blessing. To be able to do that, it’s amazing. Not very many people get to do that, but many of the people we would work with in the morning didn’t have those letters. In fact, many of them had to leave school by eighth grade to help the family; help their family earn money. They were in survival mode. And so the world would deem them uneducated. But what you come to realize is within the world in which they live, they are far more educated than we, for at least me, I’ll speak for myself and I’ll give an example. So, I’m highly educated. I can use a lot of things. You know, I can use this phone, I can use technology and all that; I don’t understand, I don’t know how this thing works. I couldn’t repair my car if my life depended on it. But yet these fellows who the world had deemed uneducated, they knew where all their food came from because they grew it. They knew which tree was better for a fence post versus firewood. I mean, in the world in which they live, they were far more in tune with how life works. Somewhere along the way, our society has deemed that sort of an education, lesser, less important or less worthwhile than this formal education like you and I’ve had the pleasure of being able to go and both are valuable.

The mistake is when you commit assume-a-cide, right? Either side; studio audience, do not look up assume-a-cide, I just made it up. It’s not in there, but I mean, we commit assume-a-cide. We assume that the other side, the other people are less than, or we’re going to take advantage of it. It’s a two way. So all kinds of assumptions. And so that was the fun part of growing up because dad was in that nexus and he thrived within that nexus. I mean, he loved just as much hanging out trying to figure out how to bring a 1908 electric truck back to life as trying to figure out how to fix the bank’s banking laws. But there’s a good example. So through these friends before dad put anything into a museum, he wanted to bring it back to life and wanted to see it work before it got put away. And so yeah, he was blessed to be, he and mom were blessed to be able to collect all the things that are at Heritage Farm.

But the real magic was the friends that came alongside of him who knew how to bring back these, you know, refinish and refurbish and re-engineer. And one of my favorite examples is there’s a 1908 electric truck in there. Here we are 110 years later, still dorking around trying to figure out how to deal with electronics and it came out the same year as the Model T. And the gentleman who brought that back to life for dad, wasn’t an executive at a big auto manufacturer. It wasn’t somebody who had completed the engineering program at any higher – and own a whole series of auto repair. It was our mailman who saw it come alive. So can I try? Yeah. So that’s cool because of our economic disadvantages in Appalachia, many people do not get to earn a living at which God gave them; the ability to shine. And so a lot of that inferiority complex or a chip on the shoulder is due to that, no fault of their own. We just aren’t aware they could have excelled. And so I think the challenge going forward is recognizing that of ourselves, because it works both ways. I mean, here’s a guy who grew up on a farm and he doesn’t know how to fix this car. That’s not good either. 

Jeremy Turner:

Not much of a country boy, Audy.

Audy Perry:

There’s a dance, there’s a dance. There’s a desire on both sides to learn more and to be able to participate in the story. And I think the more ways that we can think about how to include the full spectrum man, because there’s some of amazing people in those hollers.

Jeremy Turner:

There are, and I’ve heard you talk about the heritage of the people who settled this region, specifically the makers of things; how we’ve lost that in large part. Within the world of entrepreneurship, there’s a push to bring makership back in their makerspaces and such. But it’s something that we’ve known here for quite some time. You want to talk about the makers and the old need to make things?

Audy Perry:

It’s a good point because when you talk to school children, we get a lot of school children out at Heritage Farm. In the new push in education or the, not new, but this last decade has been STEM, science, technology, engineering, math; great, great topics. The difficulty with our school children is those are some scary words because in their own mind, they don’t necessarily think that they know an engineer or a mathematician. And what we strive to do is show them how you do, they just don’t call it that. Grandpa probably calls it tinkering and he’s an amazing engineer, but I think to your point, our message is somebody in your family was amazing. And by that and sadly, we’ll get some pushback. You don’t know my family and that’s not what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about is somebody, regardless of who you are, somebody in your family built their own home, grew their own food, made their own clothing, and were able to protect their family against whatever the world throws at them or else you and I wouldn’t be here.

It’s that simple. I can guarantee you that somebody was amazing. And so the cool part is that ability is within us as well; tapped into that. And you know, we talk about business and commerce and again, we start shrinking back as that Appalachian of, “oh well that’s New York City or Chicago and we get this inferior-enza. It’s like influenza, but it lasts a whole lot longer. But when we think about what is commerce, what is business at its core, every time we spend a dollar, it’s because you’re solving a problem. Every time I spend a dollar, I am trying to solve a problem, real or perceived. I’m hungry, I’m bored, I’m sleepy, I’m wanting to be entertained, I want to travel. All those are problems to be solved. And that’s what Appalachia was great at.

I mean, because they had to figure out everything themselves. So the good news is the core of commerce, we are excellent at. Our heritage is one of problem solving. So the main thing I think that we’ve been doing is shifting that conversation with our school children from “what do you want to be when you grow up” to “what problem would you like to solve?” For some, it’s the exact same question, but for those who haven’t, who fear that question of what am I going to be when I grew up? Which is a terrible question for anyone 12 and under. How would they know? They have no idea. And the world’s going to change so quickly, 15 years from now, we can’t even tell them what jobs they end up having don’t exist. So they might be the one that creates this new job, but we will always be looking for problem solvers and people who can critically think and evaluate and make.

If you can do one or more of those four things, problem-solve, critically think, evaluate data, and make things, you are invaluable wherever you go. And so our invitation to the school children is, “I know every day at school is not your best day or your favorite subject, but if you can figure out how to do one or more of those four things in every class that you take, you are going to be so far ahead of who else is out there, who’s just taking it to get an A or to pass, if you can figure out how this subject matters, whether it’s history or science or language arts, how is this helping me to problem solve, critically think, evaluate data, or make things, that’s the answer.” And the amazing thing is Appalachians are good at all those things based upon their heritage.

And so, hopefully chipping away at that inferior – giving them the confidence that this is in you. 

Jeremy Turner:

How does the Farm figure into that? 

Audy Perry:

So the Farm does three things; I think I like to call it three levels of thought. One is you have to identify that thing in your past that you’re trying to build off of; you know you must learn from the past. If you don’t know where you’ve been, you’ll never know where you’re going because that’s how humans react. But you must take a look at something from your past that you’re wanting to build off of. You got to find that rock. There’s a scripture in Isaiah, so here’s this wisdom from 3000 years ago, right? And it says “for hope, look to the rock from which you were chiseled from the quarry from which you were dug.” And then the prophet begins talking about Abraham, you know, but we can do that too. Where’s the rock? Where’s my starting point? What in my history of myself, family, my business, my community, however you want to apply.

Jeremy Turner:

I think that’s where some of these heritage sites have come in. They’ve gotten so popular like Ancestry and 23 and Me, where people really seeking to go back and learn about who they are based on who came before. 

Audy Perry:

There is a resurgence of that, you’re right. 

And so that’s step one. Then step two is building from that, appreciating where I am today, what took place to get me from there. Again, me personally, us as a family, us as a community, us as a business, whatever it is, what happened to get us from there to here? So not only learn from the past, but appreciate where we are today. If we’re still breathing, you got something to celebrate. There is a story there that need not be overlooked and needs to be celebrated. And then hopefully the desire for step three is again, in ourselves and our family and our community and our businesses.

I’ve learned from where I’ve come, I’ve appreciated where I am today. What’s my dream going forward? We’ve almost made dreaming a bad word, like it’s weak. Dreaming is not weak. Dreaming is that vision that allows you to put your head out of the manhole. What is possible, where are we going? Dad’s concern and that’s why he started the museum, he and mom, was afraid that our kids would stop dreaming if they didn’t know where they came from and they didn’t appreciate where they were. And because if you don’t have those two first steps, it’s hard to dream for the third. And so, that’s what the Farm seeks to do, is help them understand the past, appreciate where they are today and then dream those big dreams going forward, solve those problems. That’s what we’re working on.

Jeremy Turner:

Well it’s an amazing place and I’ve had the opportunity to come out there many times and love it. It’s such a cool place. I see something new every time and different things hit me each time I come out. So for anyone who hasn’t come out to the Farm, they absolutely need to, and I know you have a fence and all sorts of things throughout the year that pull people in. So, I think I know the answer to this question, but I want to dig into a little bit anyway. Inspiration is such a key thing as each of us, as we move towards finding what it is that we’re meant to do in this life, either for a chapter or for an entire life’s inspiration. When we become inspired, we can overcome the hurdles or withstand the hurdles and be real gritty and go at it for awhile. So thinking back, who inspired you growing up and who inspires you now? Who you try to emulate with your work? 

Audy Perry:

Well, it’s an interesting – obviously mom and dad have been a huge – you know, they walk the walk, and talk the talk and watching that firsthand is always impressive regardless of who, but they’re human. And that’s, I think the interesting thing that I’d like to, how to answer your question.

So, you would think based upon how much dad loved heritage and history and Appalachia, that he would have been one of those genealogy fans, but he knew a couple of steps back, weren’t very pretty. And so he didn’t really want to relive that. But when he got cancer and we had 20 months together, that’s another gift. Cancer’s not a gift, but having 20 months of knowing it was was time well used. We had conversations that we’d never had in those previous years. And so I finally got the nerve to ask about that, how come we don’t really know that story beyond a little bit and told me what he knew and it really inspired me because I think a lot of Appalachians think that probably people in general, everybody’s got junk, and every family has a disaster at some point. Look at the Bible. I mean, you can’t get out of the book of Genesis without, you know, anyway – But we all painfully know the ripple effects of bad decisions. I mean, we still talk about them today, from whether it’s the drug epidemic or loss of jobs or you know, all these kinds of things. We focus on those negative decisions and then the bad ripple effects that we all still suffer. But the cool thing about dad’s story that kind of came to light as we explored that is the powerful effect of positive good decisions. You know, we focus on the negative decisions and their ripple effects.

But thanks to God there is good decisions – when good decisions make the positive ripple effects are as or equally more strong. And the example I’ll give to that is just so – his mother had to quit school and go to work in the factory because of decisions people had made and all that kind of thing. And the same for his dad. And so when they got married, they knew each other’s situations, and so my grandmother said, “yes, I’ll marry you.” And then she listed all the things that in her mind she felt led to how life rolled out. And so because those two did that he agreed. “Okay. Yeah. I think we need to make a change.” Because of that positive decision that changed dad’s life, changed his brother’s life, changed my life, changed my sisters’ lives, changed my mom’s life, changed my children’s life. I mean, so generational ripples and that doesn’t mean it’s all roses and rainbows ever since, but you can definitely see if genealogy were a photo, you would see a change there. There would be a line there. And so I think there’s a lot of value in the story. Obviously it’s hard to share because nobody likes sharing that. But I think it’s important because everybody’s afraid of that junk, that they don’t want that skeleton in their closet. They’re afraid that if that they won’t be able to escape it and that it will always affect them. And in a way that’s true, however, when one chooses differently, those changes start happening and and I think that’s important for Appalachia to know. We don’t always have to be 49th. You begin to change and that’s okay.

Jeremy Turner:

What you’re saying is true for populations and for generations, isn’t that true for individuals as well? Surely I can assure you that you know, the decisions I make now are different than the ones I made 20 years ago. You know, I would likely do a few things different if I can, if I could go back and do them.

So with that thought for yourself, thinking back, we did reflect a little bit about your family, your family heritage. Is there anything that for yourself, any advice you would give your younger self and go back 20, 30 years or more, you know, couldn’t go much further because you’re not that old. 

Audy Perry:

Thank you, Jeremy. 

Jeremy Turner:

Yeah, you’re welcome.

Audy Perry:

I mean, like you say, you’d love to redo some things. I don’t think it’s healthy to sit around and try to, what ifs. But I think whether it was myself or any young person, I would say take time to talk to old people. Mature people. When you’re a kid you just don’t get it. So most of us, by the time we’re old enough to care about someone else’s life, they’re gone. And so grandparents and great grandparents, you have an example. So I had every eighth grader in Cabell County at the Farm during a season and I don’t know how many that is; probably over a thousand. I have no idea. But I asked every single one of them, “raise your hand if you have had a conversation with somebody about their life prior to electricity.”

Two who are brave enough to raise their hand. But anyway, and that just really hit me. That generation is almost calling it. And that’s such a short time in the history of man that electricity has been around. But that dramatic effect of its presence, but a hundred years basically depending on when it came to your holler, much less. But that’s just an example of my grandmother, my mom’s mom lived to be almost 101 and so thankfully, I was old enough and I learned more in her last five years than I had in all the previous 40 of my life, which is awful. But you asked, “what would I say?” Don’t miss those chances because those people, their lives were so much different, but so very similar. So their experiences teach us, but their wisdom is still applicable. You know, we like to think society has changed. No; go back and read that Genesis book. It hadn’t changed at all. 

Jeremy Turner:

So you were saying make sure that we don’t miss out on the stories of other people. Those who came before us and walked before us, find out from them what their story was; what kind of wisdom they can take and apply. So let’s say that someone wants to come and talk to you. What do you want them to take away from your story?

Audy Perry:

You know, I hope they take away that the coolest things in this world is wherever God is. Try to join Him in what He’s doing rather than trying to get Him to support your efforts, if that makes any sense. And that’s a lot easier said than done, but you can really feel the difference and see a difference when you’re trying to join the Creator of the universe rather than trying to get Him crammed into your little box. And that was a reorientation of my life at about 40. That’s led to a wild ride. But, that’s big, and I just don’t get it right. And still a lot to learn, but there’s a whole lot of joy out there if you are able to follow the Creator rather than, what do they say, kicking against the goads. So, I’d hope that’s what they discovered is how, what that means to them is everybody has their own journey and we spend so much time to compare me to you and your situation to somebody else’s situation. You know, we wasted – I think the Creator wants each of our best, not our better than, but we focus on “I did this and versus that.” I don’t think that’s the big picture. 

Jeremy Turner:

I want to go back to this piece. So you know the name of this podcast, the Heroes of Change. You’ve heard me use that phrase before. It’s evolved in tagline for my company, but I know what it means to me. But when you hear a phrase like that, what does that mean to you? Hero of Change.

Audy Perry:

A hero is somebody who did something that we think we wouldn’t have done. We’re supportive, we’re proud, we’re excited because they rose to the occasion. And then your second word is ‘change.’ Dad would say, “change is the only constant, but the only people who like change are wet babies,” you know? And so, Heroes of Change is someone who embraced what’s going to happen; met it head on and embraced it and took it to a useful point for not only themselves, because heroes are never in it for themselves; nobody celebrates the guy who saved the day just to make 10 million bucks. That guy’s never celebrated in the movie. They’re doing it for other people. And so a hero is someone, a Hero of Change is someone who goes above and beyond what we think. But what we all emulate to address a needed opportunity for their family, the community of business, nation, whatever. That’s what I think you’re talking about. 

Jeremy Turner:

Here in Huntington and West Virginia, across Appalachia, United States, our world, we’ve got lots of opportunities, and that’s not something that I think will ever change. There’s always going to be opportunities for new growth, development, improvement, and what have you. But with that, in your opinion, why is it so important that everyday people and everyday people like you and I step up and say, okay, I’m willing to do whatever it takes. I’m willing to be this Hero of Change and do whatever it takes to be the change. Why was that so important?

Audy Perry:

I think because that’s the only way it’s going to happen. One of our strongest difficulties I feel is that Appalachia, central Appalachia, which is what I’m mostly familiar with, right has been lulled into this sense that someone is going to have to come and save us. The hero, the Superman effect. Someone is going to have to come and save us. The government, a big company, fill in the blank. And those are wonderful things. I hope they do. But no one will care more about our problems and ourselves. And so if ordinary us don’t show up to be that change, I think we’re selling them a bill of goods because Superman is here, he’s not out there. Does that make sense? And that’s not to say that we don’t appreciate the support of government. We don’t pursue businesses to come; I think the biggest shift will be us believing in ourselves. I think we have a wrong opinion of how the world views us, at least from, you know, my window of tourism. People love, I mean, they’re amazed when they come and we’re the worst – they’re shocked that the person they met at their point of entry, hotel, restaurant, whatever, you know, when they say, “wow, this is wonderful.” And the answer is “really?” We are our own worst enemy. And so when we turn the enemy into a hero,that’s the change we need to start believing in ourselves. And the enemy is not out there; we are. We are the ones who self-deprecate far more than the outside world.

Jeremy Turner:

Seems like that in a lot of communities. you know, the old adage is familiar; familiarity breeds contempt. And I know that having left the area for a long time and coming back, it’s really cool for me to see. I drive by areas that I remember them as a child and of course they’ve changed everything. The only constant in the universe has changed. And so, having been away and living somewhere else and doing other things, so coming back, I think I have a different appreciation, maybe a fresh perspective. I think, while I was elsewhere in those communities where I lived, there were people who said, “oh, this place is terrible, there’s nothing good here.” And yet other people would say, “yeah, this is the greatest place on earth. I love it here.:

It seems like those conversations happen in communities all over the place. I’ve had this conversation about how we within our community here and communities elsewhere, I need to work on changing our narratives and being more positive, thinking better about ourselves and then telling better stories. And so, with that, with this need to rewrite our narratives and re-inspire people and  give people hope for the future, how do you think the Farm is helping in that work? 

Audy Perry:

Well, so beyond the historical and the school element, our next focus is on that tourism element. We strongly believe that this community can be a gateway to Appalachia. And the asset that we’ve been given is I-64. I-64 courses 45,000 cars past our exit every day.

Jeremy Turner:

Wow.

Audy Perry:

And we aren’t doing enough to let them in. I mean, they’re just going on through and although as beautiful as the interstate system is through our state, that’s just a tip of the iceberg of what waits if they can pull off. And I don’t believe tourism is the silver bullet, but I do think it is a powerful tool for the transformation of our image, both internally and externally. And our economy, because there’s a lot of places that are suffering right now because their economies have changed, that the outside world would love to explore. And just to put some dollars on that, I mean if you just pull 1% of those cars off and got that car to spend 100 bucks, now that’s $15 million without and at 1%, $100. So the opportunity is just bursting at the seams. We simply have to believe in ourselves and that’s going to be our challenge. Will we believe enough to put in the hard work, the infrastructure and the planning that it takes to capitalize on the gift we’ve been given? And so that’s what we’re working toward being right there at the Western gate to the Mountain State and see if we can help celebrate – the world has celebrated every other region of the country. And our’s has not. So it’s time to celebrate Appalachia. And so that’s what we’re working on in our next phase.

Jeremy Turner:

Awesome. Look forward to seeing that. It’s going to be amazing, no doubt. So, we’ve talked a little bit about communities, you know, as a community, we need to improve how we think about and talk about and allow others to talk about. And communities are made up of people, everyday people just like you and I, and my hope is that there are some of these everyday people listening to this podcast and that they’re able to pull something that they can take and apply in their journey. So in thinking about that and thinking about the people that may be listening, there could be one person that really needs to hear something from you today. What would be your advice? Any words of wisdom or advice or encouragement that you might offer to someone who you know, they’re the next potential Hero of Change> They’re holding back over, maybe they’re on their journey and it’s kind of tough. You know, they keep budding up against obstacles. What kinds of encouragement or words of wisdom might you offer?

Audy Perry:

Well, I will close with something my mother told me in a period of teenage angst. Everything when you’re a teenager seems like the end of the world and you know, don’t ever get better and all that stuff. You kind of waller in the iin the drama and mom simply listened and she said, “honey, the only thing small about God is you.” I’ll leave you with that. 

Jeremy Turner:

Awesome. It’s great.

Well, it’s been a pleasure. We’ve talked so many different times in different venues about different things. And so, I appreciate you taking time to share as you always do; you always share from the heart and anyone that knows you, knows that. So thank you. So you know, if someone – we’ve talked about the Farm today, so if someone wants to learn more about Heritage Farm and the work that you’re doing out there, how can they do that?

Audy Perry:

Sure. we’re on Facebook, Heritage Farm. It’s in Huntington, West Virginia. The website is heritagefarmmuseum.com. And from there you can contact us and we’d love to talk to you. Hear your story.

Jeremy Turner:

Very cool. Awesome. Again, thank you. I really appreciate you taking time today. So for today’s episode, that’s it. I want to thank you for tuning in and invite you out to the next episode where we’ll have another conversation with the community change agent and unsung hero, or who empowers others to be the change. So, I hope that you found inspiration and look forward to seeing how you go out and change the world. Thanks a bunch and we’ll see you next time.