Suffolk mourns the loss of Derl’z owner, Donna Perry

Published 6:27 pm Tuesday, February 27, 2024

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SUFFOLK, Virginia — Suffolk is saying goodbye to a beloved member of the community. 

Donna Louise Perry, owner of Derl’z Restaurant and Pub located at 425 E. Pinner St., passed away on Tuesday, Feb. 7, at 63. Along with being a recognized restaurant owner in the city, Perry also received the Suffolk News-Herald Citizen of the Year award in February 2003.

Suffolk Tourism Development Manager Theresa Earles took time to reflect on her longtime friend. Earles says that 20 years ago, after starting with Suffolk Tourism, she met Perry, who was working with the local Red Cross office organizing fundraisers and raising money for charities, first responders, and families in need. 

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“Donna instantly became a volunteer for us — jumping in whenever we needed support at a festival or event. And through the years, we developed a wonderful friendship that extended beyond our professional duties,” Earles said.

Earles notes that Perry was both “feisty and stubborn” and also “nurturing” as she provided support for Earles’ children throughout their 20-year friendship, which included midnight movie release, discussing delicious food, and even keeping Earles company in the emergency room while doing tests, not wanting her to be alone. 

Perry’s daughter Courtney Williams also reflected on her mother’s life, calling her a “role model” and a “supporter to all who crossed her path.” On her mother’s work owning the over two-decade-old family restaurant, Williams says Derl’z Restaurant and Pub was Perry’s “passion” throughout her years. 

“Mama thrived on large events, get-togethers and supporting the community, from the civic league to National Night Out. Mama loved to organize BIG THINGS! Derl’z was where she could bring the community and family into one area and provide enjoyment and things for the community to do and enjoy, right in our backyard,” Williams said.

Earles also reflected on Perry’s work at Derl’z and the Suffolk community. Calling Perry “a tried and true cook” making spaghetti, goulash, meatloaf and butterbeans “as if generations of her family were in the kitchen with her.” Earles detailed when Perry took her steps in leading the family restaurant.

“She watched as her brother operated Madigan’s and longed to make it her own restaurant — a ‘Cheers’ style place where the community gathered and friendships were built. Eventually, Madigan’s transitioned into ‘Derl’z’ and Donna set off to making her restaurant dream come true,” Earles said.

Earles also talked about the story behind the name “Derl’z.” 

“I did my very best to talk her out of the name, ‘Derl’z,’ but she wouldn’t listen,” she said humorously. “Derl was her father’s name and she adored him, so she surprised him by naming her restaurant after him. Seeing the tears in his eyes as they unveiled the ‘Derl’z’ sign, I knew she had made the right choice.”

Perry’s motto while owning Derl’z was “Enter as Strangers, Leave as Family.” Williams expressed how her mother lived by this motto beyond her restaurant.

“To know my mama, was to love my mama! She didn’t know a stranger and Derl’z became her home, the door was always open just as such,” Williams said. “As her daughter, if she had it and I needed it, I soon had it. The same was with the community, even the strangers. She would hear a story of someone needing help, kids needing school supplies, a family with a loss, a community in need and Mama would rally together to help provide support and help no matter what that looked like.”

Earles likewise noted how Perry used her business role to help those in need.

“She held numerous fundraisers for people fighting cancer, for families of those who lost their lives unexpectedly, for families without the means to make holidays happen for their children,” she said. “Donna fed people — fed their stomachs and their spirits — and made a place where everyone felt welcome regardless of who they were or where they came from. Throughout the years, I watched as she opened her home to various people, providing them a place to stay and a job if they were in a tough situation. She created jobs to provide proud people with ways to earn money — everything from pulling weeds and caring for her dog, to cooking and washing dishes. Donna put others before herself, her health, her own needs.”

She continued.

“And sadly, we now must live without her wishing she put herself before us,” Earles said. “If only we got to keep her on earth a little longer.

Earles said she would miss many things about her friend, noting that she was one of the “lucky people who got to have her” in her life. 

Williams talked about what she wanted people to know most about her mother.

“How unconditionally she loved [the] Derl’z community and family. She would be proud of the community showing up for her to help support her dreams of being a business owner,” Williams said. “She would steal the attention of any room when she walked in and loved to boost the mood in any room. She was feisty, yet kind and loving.”