Celebrating Women’s History Month With a Look Back at Elisabeth Petry

Women’s History Month is a celebration of women’s amazing accomplishments and contributions to history, culture, and society. We thank the women who made history, who smashed boundaries, and who pushed us to be our very best.

Middlesex County has a rich history of remarkable women who have excelled and flourished in their own unique ways. This year, we want to remember and recognize one very special woman. One we are all so fortunate to have known and loved.

A Look Back at an Amazing Woman, Friend, and

Humble “Brainiac” – Elisabeth Petry

CFMC is honored to have counted Liz Petry as part of our family. She served on our Board of Directors, was a founding member of our Sari. A Rosenbaum Fund for Women & Girls, and established a Fund to honor and remember her parents, Ann and George Petry. Liz truly was a “Good Person Doing Great Things.”

As part of our tribute to Liz, we took the liberty of sharing comments from Marcia Ketchum Baird, Christy Billings, Tedd Levy, Deborah Petruzzello, and Gerry Rowland. We are grateful for their special remembrances.

When we think of the vital role of women in our history, we can’t help but put a spotlight on one of our own in Middlesex County who was a true standout – Elisabeth “Liz” Petry. There are so many ways to remember Liz: Middlesex County resident, attorney, journalist, author, community volunteer, and in the words of Deborah Petruzzello, Liz’s sister-in-law, a “brainiac on so many levels.”

Liz was born in Old Saybrook and later resided in Middletown. After graduating as valedictorian of her class at Old Saybrook High School (OSHS), she attended Vassar College for her Bachelor of Arts and the University of Pennsylvania Law School for her Juris Doctor. While Liz was known for her literary work, longtime friends and fellow classmates from OSHS, including Marcia Ketchum Baird, who had known Liz since they were young girls, and Gerry Rowland, said, “She was described as an individualist, an intellectual, and a civil rights advocate, who had a maroon Mustang and planned to attend Vassar.”

Liz was a journalist (Middletown Press, Meriden Record Journal, and the Hartford Courant) and an accomplished author. She was inspired by her extraordinary family of “firsts” which included two of Connecticut’s first African American licensed pharmacists, Peter Lane and Fritz James, and her great aunt Anna Louise James (Miss James), the first African American woman pharmacist in the state. On top of all that, Liz had her mother, Ann Petry, to look up to. Ann was the first best-selling African American female author, selling over one million copies of her novel, “The Street.” Strong ambition and extraordinary talents are certainly in the family’s DNA.

Liz was devoted to and passionate about telling her family story and their place in black culture and history. She compiled and edited “Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters,” based on letters her grandmother saved, and was the author of “At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry.” Liz’s most recent project was with her cousins, Ashley James and Kathryn Golden. They started work on an hour-long documentary, “For Dear Mother’s Sake: The James Family Letters that Shaped Ann Petry“. The film, currently in production, will explore the family’s history as one that rose from slavery, triumphed over racism, and produced a number of “firsts.” Liz worked tirelessly to ensure her family’s history would be shared and could be learned from.

Liz was not only proud of her family history, but also of her husband of 18 years, Larry Riley. She met Larry through her uncle Willard McRae. Larry is a Vietnam War Veteran and was part of the Secret Service detail for presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. Deb Petruzzello stated, “She was so proud of him, and the things that he had accomplished and the awards he had earned.”

A lifelong learner, storyteller, and educator, Liz came together with Christy Billings of Russell Library to co-found and lead “We Were There: Writing Your Military Experiences,” a writing workshop for military veterans at Russell Library in Middletown which led to a publication titled, “We Were There: From Boys to Men.” In addition to Russell Library and the Community Foundation of Middlesex County (CFMC), Liz was also engaged in many activities and organizations, including the Old Saybrook Historical Society and Middlesex County Historical Society.

Christy Billings shared, “Liz will be remembered for her work through the years with the Veterans Writing Group, as well as her persistence in researching her amazing family history, and sharing that history through being a speaker and author. Liz’s writing was compelling and historical.” Christy further stated, “Liz was a wonderful friend. She had a great laugh, and was a compassionate person as well as a great listener. She was a great storyteller, and I would often ask her to read pieces aloud at our group. She had a great sense of humor and fun. Liz would speak up against injustice, and would speak up in her support of veterans. When she spoke, people listened. In a lifetime, not everyone is fortunate to have a friend and ‘partner in crime’ like I have had with Liz. Our Veterans Writing Group will continue, and we will honor Liz’s memory.” As Deb Petruzzello shared, despite all of Liz’s achievements, she remained a “humble, regular person” and had “a heart of gold.”

“Liz was a special part of the CFMC family. She joined the CFMC Board of Directors in 1999, during the organization’s infancy, and helped shape the grassroots philosophy of giving as we know it today. We are so grateful for and humbled by the many ways we were able to work with Liz over the years. Her legacy and the ways in which she brought the past to the present will continue to live on today and well into the future. We all miss Liz.”

– Cynthia Clegg, CFMC President & CEO

Women can – and do – make a great impact in our community.

Our thanks to the women, like Liz, who are making history and making memories.

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