While serving with the U.S. Navy in the Philippines during World War II, the teenaged Bob Perske became aware of the vulnerable and disabled in society and turned his life toward advocacy on their behalf. Studying for the ministry after returning to civilian life, Perske was appointed chaplain at the Kansas Neurological Institute, serving children with intellectual disabilities for 11 years, after which he became a full-time street, court, and prison worker — a citizen advocate — laboring in the cause of deinstitutionalization and civil rights of persons with disabilities, particularly those caught in the legal system. After Bob married his wife Martha in 1971, the two became partners in work, with Martha often illustrating Bob’s numerous books and articles. In 2002, Perske was recognized by the American Bar Association as the only non-lawyer to ever receive the Paul Hearne Award for Services to Persons with Disabilities.
The Perske Papers contains a fifty year record of published and unpublished writings by Bob Perske on issues surrounding persons with disabilities, along with correspondence, photographs, and other materials relating to the Perskes’ activism. The correspondence includes a particularly rich set of letters with a fellow advocate for persons with disabilities, Robert R. Williams.
The collection is open for research.
Background on Robert and Martha Perske
Robert (Bob) and Martha Perske have been advocating for persons with intellectual disabilities for the past five decades. Married in 1971, their work together began at the Kansas Neurological Institute (KNI), an institution providing care for 250 children with intellectual disabilities, where Bob served as chaplain. During this time he wrote the first article on ministry and mental retardation. His work was used by families, clergy, and congregations as a learning tool to better understand those with intellectual disabilities.
Throughout the 11 years Perske worked at KNI, his commitment to serving children with intellectual disabilities prompted other forms of service including joining several volunteer organizations that fought to end institutionalization of persons with disabilities. Perske went on to serve as executive director of the Greater Omaha Association for Retarded Citizens (GOARC), which created one of the earliest community based services in the nation, and later the Eastern Nebraska Office of Retardation (ENCOR), before becoming an advocate for persons with intellectual disabilities in prison, supporting clients and their attorneys in their fight for justice. In 2002, his more than two decades of advocacy were celebrated when he became the only non-lawyer to receive the American Bar Association's Paul Hearne Award for Services to Persons with Disabilities.
Among his many accomplishments, Bob Perske may be best known as the author of 16 books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from caring for disabled children to providing support for families. Martha contributed to these efforts as illustrator and editor. She first began sketching the faces of the young residents at KNI and soon perfected her natural talent. Her drawings, simply executed in pencil but incredibly beautiful and expressive, illustrated first Bob's books and later two major reports on disabilities for Presidents Nixon and Carter and the 1981 International Year of Disabled Persons commemorative stamp.
Over the years, the couple have been recongnized for their contributions to the care and treatment of persons with intellectual disabilities and have won numerous awards. They continue their work in Darien, Connecticut, where they reside.
The Perske Papers document the couple's life-long efforts to advocate for services and civil rights for persons with intellectual disabilities. As a compassionate observer of the challenges facing individuals with disabilities and their families, Bob Perske used his skills as a communicator to present ideas and connect people both through his writing and speeches. Martha, his partner in all things, used her natural talent as an artist and editor to compliment his writing. Their combined efforts are represented in drafts of speeches, published articles, and artwork.
Bob Perkse was also instrumental in creating and maintaining networks of support for persons with intellectual disabilities wrongfully accused and convicted of crimes. Materials in the collection chronicle the status of various cases that he was involved in and include transcripts of interviews, media coverage, and his own communications. Images of the accused, sometimes photographed with Perske, further demonstrate his efforts to put faces to the names of these individuals as well as document his ongoing advocacy.
Acquired from Robert and Martha Perske, 2013.
Processed by Chelsey Talbot, October 2013.
Cite as: Robert and Martha Perske Papers (MS 772). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.