MIDDLETOWN — His impact stretched from the city’s sprawling East End to its desolate downtown, but still Perry D. Thatcher avoided the spotlight.
“I never wanted to be out front,” he said in an interview with the Middletown Journal a few weeks before he died Thursday, Jan. 28, from pancreatic cancer at age 79.
Thatcher retired from Inland Container Corp. in 1979 at age 48 and admits: “I didn’t know what I wanted to do next.”
So the Middletown native spent the rest of his life giving back to his hometown.
Thatcher purchased, restructured and sold numerous businesses; owned and sold some of the city’s most sought-after property; donated tens of thousands of dollars to charities and nonprofit organizations; and served on boards and councils.
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Arguably, he was partly responsible for saving Sunset Pool, keeping the struggling Manchester Inn open, and luring business downtown.
The Middletown Area YMCA honored Thatcher for his generosity and commitment to Middletown with a Humanitarian Award during its “Celebration of Character” event Dec. 12.
“He didn’t talk often, but when he did, you wanted to listen,” said Flo Randall, founder of Light Up Middletown, a drive-through holiday lights display at Smith Park. “I always call him my guardian angel.”
Some were critical of Thatcher’s business dealings, and his four years on Middletown City Council didn’t come without controversies.
Thatcher didn’t care. He didn’t try to win friends with his decisions or his donations.
Instead, he said, he always tried to do what was right.
“I am who I am.... People don’t understand I talk a different language,” he said.
Thatcher’s influence indelible
Perry Thatcher, unhappy with Middletown City Council, ran into then-councilman Fred Sennet one day while dining at the Manchester Inn.
Thatcher told Sennet that he was going to run against him, unseat him, and change the way council operated.
Thatcher then easily defeated Sennet on Nov. 6, 2001.
“I saw so many opportunities being missed in our city,” he said in an interview with the Journal a few weeks before he died Jan. 28 from pancreatic cancer at age 79.
Beautiful, interesting mind
Those who knew Thatcher best said his signature trait was seeing opportunities where others did not.
“His mind worked different than normal people,” said Adam Cristo, a longtime friend and business associate. “His way of solving problems was different than anybody else’s.
“He had a beautiful, interesting mind.”
Bob Fairchild, president of Ample Industries — one of the companies Thatcher founded, said Thatcher epitomized the phrase “thinking outside of the box.”
“His favorite words were ‘What if?’ ” Fairchild said. “He would say, ‘What if we could change this process? What if we could knock down this wall? What if?’
“He was a brilliant idea man. People like that are blessed with a gift most of us don’t have,” he said.
Rags to riches
Thirty-one years ago, Thatcher retired from Inland Container Corp. as its president and started a new phase of buying, selling and investing in his hometown. He co-founded numerous businesses, including Precision Packaging Services Corp. and Ample Industries.
Thatcher made his fortune by engineering clamshell Big Mac boxes for McDonald’s. At the time, the popular restaurant chain was at the forefront of the “green movement” and was looking for a way to change its foam packaging into something biodegradable and environmentally friendly.
Enter Perry Thatcher.
Fairchild recalled Thatcher’s expertise in corrugated materials led to the design of a carton box that McDonald’s officials “fell in love with” and still utilize to this day. He said Thatcher even developed the machinery necessary to produce the boxes.
“Out of everyone in the country, McDonald’s chose Perry’s idea,” Fairchild said.
“He was always fascinated with how something worked,” Fairchild said. “He would look at something and say, ‘If they would have changed this or that a little bit there, it would have run faster or smoother.’
“He was always trying to make something better.”
Cristo recalled times when the two of them would be walking down the street and Thatcher picked up a piece of paper trash from the gutter.
“Cars would have run over it, but he would pick it up, look at it from every angle, and stick it in his pocket,” Cristo said. “He would study this stuff to see how he could make it better, and his laboratory was his kitchen table.”
Following his success with McDonald’s, Thatcher became regarded as one of the leading corrugated engineers in the world and spoke at many international conferences, Cristo said. There was just one problem:
“He wasn’t an engineer,” Cristo said with a laugh. “Perry went to night school for 16 years to get some kind of business degree. That’s just how good he was.”
Devoted to downtown
Thatcher later used his success to start numerous businesses. He also served his community on a variety of boards.
He served a four-year term on Middletown City Council. During that time, he was instrumental in relocating Middletown Regional Hospital, now Atrium Medical Center, in Middletown, rather than seeing it moved to Monroe.
And while the new hospital was a key part of the city’s East End development, Thatcher’s heart always seemed to be attached to downtown.
Thatcher owned several downtown properties, including the former Cinergy building, 1 N. Main St.; MiddCommons, 2 N. Main St.; the former Bank One building, 2 S. Main St.; the former Masonic Temple, 4 N. Main St.; two downtown businesses with the 2005 Group; and co-owned the Manchester Inn with Bill Akers and the Barry Levey trust.
“He was always concerning himself with improving the downtown,” Fairchild said. “He wanted to rejuvenate what he remembered as a child and as a young man growing up. It was special to him.”
Fairchild said sometimes while having lunch at a restaurant, Thatcher would furiously scribble out plans for downtown on the backs of the paper table mats.
“He would draw what would be the next downtown Middletown,” Fairchild said. “He would sketch out an area where buildings had been removed and green space and parking lots would be added.”
One of Thatcher’s biggest downtown investments became the historic Manchester Inn hotel.
Even though it never turned a profit, Thatcher continued to pump money into the 87-year-old hotel to keep it afloat. His financial support continued even after the hotel sustained $250,000 in water damage when a 2-inch ceiling pipe burst.
Thatcher refused to walk away even when everyone including his accountants were telling him to take the insurance money and run. To Thatcher, letting the Manchester die would have undermined years of trying to prove Middletown is not a dying town.
“Manchester Inn is in the center of it all and needs to remain open and remain a viable piece of rebuilding the city,” Thatcher said in an interview prior to the hotel’s grand reopening in June. “It was the right thing to do.”
Thatcher not only made repairs to the hotel, he also improved it. His personal assistant of nine years, Judy Bober, said the hotel would remain open despite Thatcher’s death.
Thatcher’s supporters applauded him because he tirelessly worked his way up, from janitor to company president, from paperboy to newsmaker.
Many called him a millionaire philanthropist, someone who “put his money where his mouth is,” said Rich Bevis, manager of Middletown Municipal Airport.
Ann Mort, owner of the Middletown public relations firm who ran Thatcher’s political campaign, said he “used his money for the betterment of the community.”
He recently received a humanitarian award during a “Celebration of Character” event sponsored by the Middletown Area YMCA.
But as his days dwindled, Thatcher said so did his fortunes, because of enormous business investments, donations and medical expenses.
“I don’t have it anymore,” he said in an interview with the Journal in December. “I can’t afford some things.”
This summer, Thatcher, wearing a suit, opened the trunk of his silver Jaguar, grabbed weed killer and sprayed the parking lot of one of his downtown properties he was trying to sell. A few months later, he was seen climbing the roof of the Manchester Inn looking for possible leaks.
“I’d like to do more for more people,” he said. “What bothers me is people think I have it when I don’t have it.”
Gary Recker, owner of Recker and Company, recalled how Thatcher’s generosity saved his business after it burned to the ground six years ago. Recker said he wasn’t sure what he was going to do or how he would make a living after the fire.
Then Thatcher, who Recker described as “an acquaintance he’d served on a few boards with,” stepped in.
“Perry’s words were, ‘Gary, you can’t go out of business,’” Recker said. “He basically said, ‘What do you need?’
“I threw out a number, and he cut me a check. It was pretty amazing.”
Thatcher also loaned Recker shop space for his business until he could get back on his feet.
“It was a very, very generous gesture. He didn’t gain anything out of that,” Recker said. “He just did it to see me survive.
Recker added that Thatcher would always entertain people’s ideas, no matter how far-fetched.
“He always gave you feedback and insight,” he said. “No idea was ever too wild for him.”
When asked about his proudest moment, Thatcher said, “I don’t know. I just want to do what’s right.”
Win some, lose some
In his last interview, Thatcher mentioned the Dynus trial where Michael A. Fox, former state lawmaker, Butler County commissioner and Children Services director, and others have been accused of profiting from a fiber optics deal and failing to report the income.
Orlando Carter, former owner of the Dynus Corp. fiber optics firm, former Butler County Auditor Kay Rogers and two Dynus employees were found guilty of misdeeds in the case.
Thatcher, who owned some of the fiber lines, said he “danced with all those partners” for years.
Then he stepped off the floor. “I knew things were not right,” he said, “and I was wise enough to say, ‘It’s not right and it’s not for me.’ It cost me millions of dollars. I was proud that I was able to stand up. I’ve always done what I thought was best.”
Fairchild said Thatcher and his businesses have left an indelible mark on the region. He noted that two companies Thatcher founded, Ample Industries and Burrows Paper, formerly Corroc, are two of Franklin’s largest employers with more than 500 total workers combined.
But not all of Thatcher’s business exploits bore fruit.
“Perry was never afraid to take a gamble, and gamblers don’t always win,” Fairchild said. “But if he got beat, he always got back up.”
For years in some social circles, Thatcher, a Middletown High School graduate who earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial management/administrative management from the University of Cincinnati, was considered the city’s most eligible bachelor.
Thatcher, whose first wife, Janet, died many years ago of mad cow disease, started dating Lisa Rupp and they became engaged last year.
“It became too difficult to be a good businessman and have a date with a different lady every night,” he said.
Thatcher, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in November, traveled extensively seeking the latest in medical treatment. During an interview in his downtown office in December, Thatcher, looking frail and tired, was asked if he was afraid of dying.
“I don’t think it’s in my vocabulary,” he said, quickly sitting up in his chair. “I’m not afraid of it.”
On Thatcher’s passing, Cristo said, “he beat the odds on just about everything he faced except the death of his wife (Janet) and his own death.”
A town without Perry
His friends, family and business associates said Thatcher worked every day right up to his last breath. Even during the final months of his life, Thatcher was working to forge a partnership between the Manchester Inn and Cincinnati State Technical and Community College to start a culinary school at the hotel.
“He was a great man who enjoyed a great life,” Fairchild said. “It’s a shame that it came to such an abrupt end.”
Staff writers Ryan Gauthier and Kevin Aldridge contributed to this report.