PERU | Mike Derrick had just retired from a decorated 28-year career in the Army, during which he and his family lived all over the world. The married father of four was living in Washington, D.C., working as a senior adviser for the State Department in diplomatic relations and enjoying a “very comfortable, satisfying, wonderful life.”
His father, William, was in his fourth, and final, bout with cancer.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘You know, you should run for Congress.’ It wasn’t something I really gave much thought to but once he passed away, I began to think about it,” Derrick said. “I was very distressed with what I saw at the national level and I think this region needs some different kinds of leadership.”
Following his father’s death in August 2014, Derrick, a Democrat, resigned his post at the State Department, moved back to Peru, and last spring launched his campaign to unseat incumbent Rep. Elise Stefanik in the race for New York’s 21st Congressional District.
While Derrick does not have a political background, Clinton County Treasurer Kimberly Davis believes his strengths lie in an ability to connect with people and other skills honed in the military, where he was a teacher and administrator and led troops in combat.
“I think the biggest asset will be his career, having someone who both understands theory of the armed forces and also has had the practical, realistic experiences of being in war,” Davis said.
Derrick, 54 and the eldest of three children, was born in Munich, Germany to parents who taught for the Department of Defense Dependents Schools. His father had been a Marine who was drafted right after World War II and called up from the reserves for the Korean War.
Derrick was a year old when the family moved to the U.S. so his father could attend graduate school in Chicago. His father eventually earned a doctorate at SUNY Albany. In 1974, his father became the director of the Campus School at SUNY Plattsburgh and settled his wife, Virginia, and children in Peru. Virginia worked as a speech therapist and speech pathologist.
Education was always “at the top of the list” in the Derrick household, along with self-sufficiency. Derrick learned to split wood, garden and care for farm animals.
“Kids were expected to participate fully in things. It wasn’t like stuff was done for us. We all had chores,” Derrick said.
Derrick was almost 13 when the family moved to Peru. In the mid-‘70s, the town was a bustling place, due to the activity at Plattsburgh Air Force Base about 10 miles away.
For high school, he enrolled at Mount Assumption Institute, a Catholic school in Plattsburgh. He sang, played French horn in the band, and as a distance runner, sometimes ran the 11-mile commute to or from school.
“I covered a lot of miles,” he said.
Becky Kasper, who knew Derrick from their high school class of about 100 kids, was involved in extracurricular clubs with him. She described him as intelligent, thoughtful and disciplined. He had “quietness but solidness of character,” she said.
“You would never have to worry about him talking about other people, gossiping. You could have a confidence of that in him,” she said.
While participating in a state cross country championship meet at Bear Mountain State Park, Derrick stepped onto the nearby campus of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for the first time. He remembers being so focused on West Point’s track and field program he didn’t appreciate he was visiting one of the most esteemed military schools in the nation.
“I learned more about it later, obviously,” he said.
He sought a congressional appointment to West Point but also applied to Dartmouth. He chose West Point based on family finances.
“I saw West Point as the best school I could get into at the lowest cost,” he said.
Following his 1980 high school graduation, he took a gap year in Brittany, France, with a family his father knew. In France, he completed another year of high school.
Deferring admission to West Point meant he had to go through the appointment process all over again, but he was better-prepared, he said, especially since now he was fluent in French.
He was granted the second appointment to West Point and enrolled, choosing a concentration in West European Area Studies. Derrick never did make the cross-country team but instead took up orienteering.
After graduating in 1985, the orienteering experience helped in Army Ranger School, a grueling 60-day combat leadership course, in which soldiers carry out missions in harsh conditions while subsisting on little food and sleep.
Paul Krajeski, a West Point friend who now lives in New Hampshire, went through ranger school with Derrick. He said the experience tests an individual’s ability to survive and stresses the importance of working with fellow soldiers.
“Mike would never be that person that would say, ‘Oh, that’s too hard. I’m going to stop. I’m cold, tired and hungry,’” Krajeski said. “The ones that do that, well that’s why it’s ranger school and everybody doesn’t make it.”
Derrick’s first assignment in 1986 took him to South Korea, where he crossed paths with Kathy, a female cadet he graduated with at West Point.
“I was actually in a tailor shop, getting my uniforms prepared and she walked in,” he recalled.
After an overseas courtship, they came home two years later to marry in Pennsylvania, where Kathy’s parents lived.
The Derrick family lives in a handsome timber frame home on the edge of Peru, surrounded by apple trees and views of the Champlain Valley. Designed by Derrick’s brother and built by his brother-in-law, it’s the house his parents settled in after moving out from the center of town. His father is dead now and his mother, 86, has moved to a nearby retirement community.
No matter where the family lived, the home has been a “touchstone” for summertime get-togethers, Derrick said. Son William, now attending West Point, has memories of picking apples with his grandfather and jumping off cliffs into swimming holes in nearby Ausable.
The Derricks have two other sons — one in high school in Peru and the other in the Army. A daughter attends college in Colorado.
Asked what he is most proud of in his life, Derrick doesn’t mention the medals and bars in a shadow box or the two Iron Man competitions or the 140-mile adventure race he entered.
“I’m a father, husband, teacher, leader,” he said.
In the kitchen, a row of little wooden houses sits atop a cabinet. Derrick said it’s an “Army thing” to set up some sort of display that marks the chronological progression the family has made, moving from place to place around the world.
The Derrick family made 10 major moves plus a few briefer ones over the years, expanding to four children, earning three advanced degrees and marking numerous achievements.
“It’s easy for us to look at (the display) and know it was just the life we lived, but you take a couple of steps back and you realize that there were just some remarkable things,” Derrick said.
Following retirement from the Army in 2013, Derrick became a senior adviser to the State Department in the field of missile defense and cooperation between NATO and the Arab nations.
These days, Derrick is consumed with his campaign. He no longer runs (“too many miles on this chassis”) but takes long walks with Kathy and bicycles to keep fit. Peru will be the place he calls home for a long time, he said — it’s “a good fit.”
Becky Kasper, the classmate from Mount Assumption Institute, sees his return to Peru as “coming full circle.”
“He confirms my confidence that good people can make extraordinary and positive changes in the world if they really dedicate themselves,” she said. “The person I see right now in Mike is the person I knew in high school — obviously more mature and experienced and has cultivated all kinds of skill sets — but, at heart, he is a person of such character and it has come to fruition. I couldn’t be more delighted about that.”