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Leigh Perkins, who took Orvis beyond fly fishing, dies at 93

The man who transformed the Vermont-based Orvis company from a niche fly-fishing supply company into a global retailer of outdoor supplies, apparel and protector of the environment has died. Leigh H. Perkins was 93.

The Sunderland-based Orvis company says Perkins died May 7 in Monticello, Florida. The cause of death was not released.

An online tribute published on the company’s website said Perkins was a lifelong outdoorsman who hunted or fished more than 250 days a year into his 90s who had a reverence for nature and conservation.

The company says that Perkins began donating 5% of pre-tax profits to conserving fish and wildlife.

While Orvis is based in Sunderland, not far from the headwaters of the Batten Kill — one of the most famous trout streams in the state — the company’s reach goes across the world.

“He followed that fly rod to all corners of the world and he made connections and relationships to both places and people across the globe,” Simon Perkins, Leigh Perkins’ grandson and the current president of Orvis, said Tuesday.

Simon Perkins is the third generation of his family to lead the company.

Christopher Saunders, a project coordinator for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, who describes himself as a passionate fly fisherman, said the legacy of Leigh Perkins is considerable for both the sport of fly fishing and Vermont.

Saunders said Vermont was a cradle of the fly fishing industry, but over the years the focus of the world moved west. Perkins made sure fly fishing in Vermont remained prominent.

“To this day people still make pilgrimages to go to Orvis and fly fish on the Batten Kill river and surrounding areas,” Saunders said.

“He obviously was committed to more than the bottom line,” Saunders said. “There was a lot of focus on education.”

In 1966, Perkins began what the company describes as the world’s first fly-fishing schools, first in Vermont and then elsewhere. Saunders said those schools helped introduce thousands of anglers to fly fishing.

Perkins was born in Cleveland in 1927, but went to college in western Massachusetts. His mother imbued him with a love of the outdoors and hunting and fishing.

Orvis, founded in 1856 by Charles F. Orvis, was a niche business with 20 employees and $500,000 in annual sales when Perkins bought it in 1965. Over the next 27 years, Perkins transformed it into a retail and mail-order business with sales that topped $90 million.
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