As a pioneer in focusing attention on cancer survivors’ quality of life, Eileen Perini drew inspiration from her son’s years-long remission and forged a steady resolve from grieving his death.
“We always think of courage as things like climbing mountains, but courage has a whole different meaning for me now,” she told the Globe a few weeks after David B. Perini Jr. died of cancer in 1990, at 26. “It’s taking whatever God gives you, or what life gives you, and really having the courage to face all the things that happen to you.”
For her son, that meant enduring treatment, remission, and relapse all without “an ounce of self-pity.” Mrs. Perini, meanwhile, dedicated herself to raising money for programs that would address the ongoing challenges faced by those who live a few years or several decades after being diagnosed. By doing so, she said, “somehow David’s life will continue. It was so beautiful I don’t want it to end. I want to be able to really help people who cannot help themselves.”
Mrs. Perini, who had lived in Medfield and Cohasset, was 80 when she died Saturday of complications from dementia. With her husband, David B. Perini, she raised more than $11.5 million and launched a center and programs at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to advance research and clinical care for cancer survivors.
“The family has quite a long, rich history with Dana-Farber, and Eileen carried that on,” said Susan Paresky, Dana-Farber’s senior vice president for development and the Jimmy Fund.
The late Louis Perini, a former principal owner of what was then the Boston Braves, was a founder of the Jimmy Fund, and he was Mrs. Perini’s father-in-law.
Mrs. Perini helped expand the family’s involvement into new realms after seeing the challenges her son faced while in remission. With her husband, a former chief executive of the Perini Corp. construction company and former commissioner of the state Division of Capital Asset Management, she established the David B. Perini Jr. Quality of Life Clinic in memory of their son.
That clinic focuses on survivors of children cancers, and the Perinis also created an endowment in 2010 to support in perpetuity the Adult Survivorship Program, which is part of the Perini Family Survivors’ Center.
“She saw the need for this,” Paresky said of Mrs. Perini, whose foresight over the years “means a lot here at Dana-Farber and it means a lot to the families who use the clinic services.”
Mrs. Perini “had this combination of kindness and gentleness, but steely determination when it came to the clinic,” said her daughter Jennifer Perini of San Francisco, a Jimmy Fund trustee. “She would send thousands of fund-raising letters every year. She was very persistent when it came to making sure the clinic was financially healthy and thriving.”
Joining Dana-Farber’s Board of Trustees in 1990, the year her son died, Mrs. Perini served on key committees for the institute and the Jimmy Fund, and she became a distinguished trustee in 2014.
“I loved the institute so much, but how can you love a place when you lose a child? I didn’t know whether I could go back there, yet I wanted to be part of it,” Mrs. Perini said in a 2002 interview for a Dana-Farber publication. “I wanted to heal and not be afraid.”
She also participated directly in fund-raising as captain of the family’s team in the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk for 29 years, beginning when David was still alive. Mrs. Perini also was a force behind such fund-raisers as the David B. Perini Jr. Memorial Golf Tournament, held for 19 years, and the family’s team in the Pan-Mass Challenge.
“Doing something like this enhances you as a person,” Mrs. Perini said in the 2002 interview about her work supporting Dana-Farber initiatives.
“You have a greater purpose in life.”
The fifth of nine children, Eileen Callahan grew up in Arlington, a daughter of Denis Callahan, who owned a pub, and the former Margaret Lynch.
Along with graduating from Arlington High School, she won pageants in her late teens and was Miss Arlington, Miss Lexington, and runner-up in a Miss Massachusetts contest. In 1957, she graduated from Cardinal Cushing College, a small women’s college in Brookline.
She married David B. Perini in 1962 and they lived in Dover while raising their five children. Their marriage, always strong, became even closer when David, as a high school senior, was diagnosed with cancer. “I’ve never seen a marriage like that in all my travels,” Jennifer said. “They had so much mutual respect and mutual admiration to the end. They were a formidable team. They cared so much for each other.”
While raising her children, Mrs. Perini took up running and earned the nickname “Smileen” in the neighborhood, because she smiled so readily during training runs, no matter the weather.
In her 40s she returned to school, graduating from Wellesley College in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and from Boston College four years later with a master’s in clinical social work. Mrs. Perini subsequently counseled students at BC for several years.
At work or in social situations, Mrs. Perini “was fascinated with people,” her daughter Jennifer recalled.
“As kids, we would marvel at how she would meet someone at a party and within minutes they were telling her intimate details of their lives,” Jennifer added. “She had the ability to bring that out in people. She really genuinely cared.”
In addition to her husband, David, and daughter Jennifer, Mrs. Perini leaves three other children, Kristin of Hingham, Timothy of Harrison, N.Y., and Andrea of Brooklyn, N.Y.; five sisters, Mary Guarente of Weston, Margaret Callahan of West Yarmouth, Noreen Cronin and Kathleen Grannan, both of Arlington, and Christine Shanley of Bonita Springs, Fla.; a brother, Denis Callahan of Avon; and 10 grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 1 p.m. Thursday in Most Precious Blood Church in Dover. A rite of committal will follow in Woodlawn Cemetery in Wellesley.
Mrs. Perini “always mourned David. That was a loss that she never ever got over,” Jennifer said. “That was the biggest tragedy, and also became one of the central passions of her life.”
The example David set provided Mrs. Perini with insight into how to proceed with her own life. “He never had an ounce of despair,” she said in the Globe interview, just weeks after he died. “We were really transformed by David.”
And so from him she took her cue: “David always used to say to me, ‘Mom, I want so much to live a good life.’ ” When illness left him ineligible for the Peace Corps, he volunteered to do everything from sweeping floors in Brookline’s Ronald McDonald House, which hosts children undergoing cancer treatment, to teaching an elderly man to read.
Charting her own course, Mrs. Perini raised funds and supported innovative programs for cancer survivors. She recalled that even when David knew “he only had weeks or possibly three months to live, somewhere inside him he found the will to make every day count. He just made the world a better place to live in.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.