It is impossible to describe Marla Perkel without mentioning her courage and her energy. She was a dancer, mounted police officer, community organizer, geneticist, bed-and-breakfast hostess, and volunteer at the Wellfleet Public Library and Truro Council on Aging.
“On Monday nights, when Mom was on patrol, I was scared,” said daughter Diana of the days when the family lived in New York City and Marla rode in Central Park as one of the first three women appointed to the auxiliary mounted police force in 1973.
She did that volunteer job — armed with only a night stick — for 15 years while raising two daughters with her husband, Bertram “Buddy” Perkel. They were married for 61 years.
Marla died at her condominium at Seashore Point in Provincetown on Jan. 15, 2023, just days after organizing an art show there. Her health was good, and her death of heart failure at 86 came fast and unexpectedly, which is just the way she wanted it, said Buddy.
Born Marla Joyce Schneider in 1936 in Canton, Ohio, she was a ballet dancer and spent childhood summers at dance academies in New York City. She moved to New York to attend Finch College and then Columbia University, where she earned master’s degrees in zoology and philosophy.
She had completed her dissertation for a Ph.D. in zoology when her academic adviser died. She had just given birth so did not complete the degree requirements. The university granted the master’s in philosophy to students who came close to achieving a Ph.D., said her husband.
As a young mother, Marla threw herself into life in Chelsea. Diana said she and her sister, Rachel, grew up as “latchkey kids — in the best sense.” Her mother would be home by 5 p.m. and get dinner ready for the four of them. Buddy worked long hours as an attorney but would come home for dinner every night at 6 and then return to the office.
Marla’s daytime activities included managing the nine-unit co-op building where the family lived. She ran the Chelsea Civil Rights Council and served on the board of the Hudson Guild Settlement House. She was a founding member of the Food Co-op of the General Theological Seminary, which involved her rising before dawn to travel to the Bronx and then spending hours repacking food for distribution to co-op members. The family was often besieged by wholesale-size bags of raw vegetables, which then would become healthy if repetitive features at their dinner table.
“I could never trade my lunch,” Diana said. “It was too healthy.” They didn’t have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until they were adults, Rachel added.
Marla volunteered to read complex science textbooks with Recording for the Blind for more than 25 years. This included providing descriptions of scientific diagrams and charts. She eventually trained other readers and helped thousands of visually-impaired students study science.
She followed in the footsteps of her artistic mother by running a needlepoint canvas business called Designs From Antiquity. And in her later years in New York, she became a fully trained volunteer mediator for the city’s criminal court system.
“Marla was a self-effacing polymath,” said Buddy.
Buddy remembers meeting Marla at a party in December 1960. The two were married in August 1961.
“I have been very fortunate,” he said.
Rachel said Marla’s talent for community organizing came from her huge heart. When they traveled, which they did extensively, she would invite a person who was sitting alone at dinner to join their table, Buddy said.
Marla and Buddy honeymooned in Provincetown in 1961 and started spending summers in Wellfleet in 1970. They bought a home on Ocean View Drive, where Marla operated a small bed and breakfast in the guest cottage.
When Buddy and Marla decided to make the Outer Cape their year-round home in 2001, they bought a house in North Truro, though Marla missed Wellfleet and continued fetching her mail at the South Wellfleet Post Office for years after the move.
Marla loved the natural environment of the Cape and rode horses throughout the National Seashore. “Even many years after her riding days were over,” said her friend and fellow horsewoman Betsy Mellor, “Marla would know exactly where I had been if I showed her a photo from our Outer Cape trails.”
When back problems made it difficult for her to walk and she had to give up her car in June 2020, Marla took an adventurous last drive down a dirt road on the Wellfleet-Truro line. Her car got stuck and Marla got through the night walking and then crawling until hikers found her in the morning.
“I’m scared of a lot of things, but not my woods,” she told the Independent.
Marla is survived by her husband, Buddy Perkel of Provincetown; daughters Diana Perkel of Amesbury and Rachel Perkel and husband Shawn Becker of Burlingame, Calif.; grandchildren Aaron and Abigail Becker; niece Maria Brand of Scarsdale, N.Y.; and other nieces, nephews, and cousins.
A memorial is being planned for later in the year. In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to Wild Care in Eastham or the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown.