A longtime educator at one moment is explaining some of the best things happening in his school district, and the next minute trying to make sense of some of the worst.
It’s a challenging role for any individual, but Larry Perkinson, the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. employee and student assistance coordinator, said his natural instinct as a caretaker often takes the lead in his work, in times of celebration and crisis.
Perkinson, 63, credits people in the Columbus community who work with him to watch over about 800 BCSC employees and nearly 11,600 students each day.
“Sometimes there’s so little time,” he said of the crisis moments. “You just go into business mode. It doesn’t mean you’re not frustrated. It just means that I trust a lot of people to help me.”
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Perkinson is this year’s recipient of the William R. Laws Human Rights Award from the Columbus Human Rights Commission. He will be honored at 6:30 p.m. May 11 at The Commons for his efforts to improve relationships, increase the sensitivity of groups toward each other, eliminate barriers for people who face prejudice and create new safeguards to protect the rights of others.
Nominated by former Columbus Police Chief Jason Maddix, who now is Cummins’ North American security manager, Perkinson said he was caught off guard by the phone call letting him know he was the recipient.
“I was feeling very emotional about it,” he said. “I was thinking, oh my goodness, my family does all of this all their lives and they don’t get the awards. I hope my friends and colleagues see that this is a reflection of all of us.”
Maddix, a Columbus police detective earlier in his career when he first began working with Perkinson, said BCSC’s assistance coordinator became a mentor as he navigated working with different people throughout the community.
“He has always done so much more than what the job required,” Maddix said. “He really cares, and he always has the best interests of people at heart.”
Perkinson understands the issues in the community affecting students and is willing to address those issues head-on — from student homelessness to drug abuse to the youngsters who just don’t get enough sleep at night to be successful at school, the former police chief said.
“I used to joke around that if I was ranking people, first there would be God, and right below that would be Larry Perkinson,” Maddix said. “He’s very passionate and dedicated to what he does in the community.”
A teacher and a coach
Raised in a community of Quakers near Azalia, Perkinson exudes a quiet calm and demeanor that draws individuals instinctively to him in his educational career.
Perkinson got his start in education as a junior high English teacher in North Vernon following his 1975 graduation from Indiana State. He moved to the Columbus-based district four years later to teach at Northside Middle School.
During his time as a teacher, he also was a wrestling coach, and recalls helping youngsters take the lessons they learned in sports and translating them into classroom success.
In 1996, when former BCSC employee and student assistance coordinator Phil Wasmuth retired, Perkinson decided to apply for the position, describing Wasmuth as a pioneer in his field.
The challenges before Perkinson then were a new array of laws and regulations about school safety, and relationship programs designed to help students navigate a new century.
It was a time when bullying came out of the shadows of being tolerated as a rite of passage to becoming a high-profile social issue, safety threats involving weapons, drugs and alcohol abuse and, as Perkinson would soon discover, the need to help homeless students and their families.
Perkinson works with many community agencies — such as Foundation for Youth, the Bartholomew County Probation Department and Love Chapel — to provide assistance to staff and students, he said.
“Our missions are different, but we’re all there for the same thing,” he said. “And we don’t do any of this individually — the deans, school resource officers, nurses, counseling staff — I don’t think anybody can do this on their own.”
“This” involves any number of assistance issues — from the 2008 flood in which BCSC staff helped find temporary housing and clothing for displaced families to the recent incidents of taunting of Hispanic students in BCSC hallways during the November presidential election.
Perkinson serves as the voice of the school corporation to explain school safety issues when an incident happens in the school. He may also be called upon by local media to talk about a student who has died under tragic circumstances.
At times like that, Perkinson said he relies on examples from his father-in-law, a Quaker minister, who has a gift for eulogies.
“He taught me how to get to know someone in three or four conversations,” Perkinson said. “I try to remember that moments don’t always represent what that person was. When you know the person, it’s easier to understand that,” he said.
Touched personally by tragedy
Perkinson and his family have not been immune from tragedy.
His 18-year-old daughter April died in an accident in college where alcohol was involved. She slipped and fell several floors out a window and died from her injuries a week later in June 1997.
The memory of his daughter is never far away, and Perkinson still sheds tears for his daughter and the dreams that she did not realize.
“It was the week before her 19th birthday. She wanted to be a teacher. She wanted to have five kids,” he said.
Many of her dreams were shared in a “letter to God,” that her siblings found in a dresser drawer after her death, a letter Perkinson published in “Daffodils and Dog-Ears,” one of two books he has published about his life experiences.
“Dads ought not to have favorites, but that didn’t stop April from competing for the honor,” the father of four daughters said. “It (what happened) doesn’t represent what she had to offer the world.”
An evolving job
These days, Perkinson continues his community involvement by working with the Substance Abuse Council of Bartholomew County and its efforts to fight the local opiate epidemic.
He serves with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education Council and teams in the community who are working on some of the toughest issues for families: Domestic violence, tobacco, child protection and substance abuse.
Scott Hundley, director of counseling and community for Community Downtown, has worked with Perkinson for 17 years, including on the council’s annual fall conference.
Describing Perkinson as always well prepared, Hundley said Perkinson would arrive the night before as well as early in the day of the event to assist in setting up and facilitating whatever needed to be done.
The Laws award mentions a “long-term act of service,” Hundley said, a criteria Perkinson represents well.
“Larry is quick to volunteer and go the the extra mile to support families in crisis as well as local initiatives that promote emotional health,” Hundley said.
Perkinson said he wishes he could say there is a magic umbrella that covers local schools and protects them from the perils that other school corporations have experienced.
“But if you’ve read about it somewhere else, we probably have it here,” he said.
However, he was surprised at the taunting incidents aimed at Hispanic students that occurred in school hallways during the recent election, saying he had not anticipated that would occur in a community that has been so diverse for quite some time.
But even with the anxiety and concern during that time, Perkinson said his focus was to remind students of the expectations the school corporation has for each of its students and what accountability means.
“Larry is capable of connecting well with people regardless of class values and culture, regardless of their struggles,” Hundley said. “Sadly, many professionals today are either incapable or choose not to enter the worlds of those who are hurting. Larry has a huge capacity for empathy.”
Maddix said what many people recognize immediately in Perkinson is that he’s realistic about problems and their solutions.
“The world needs more Larry Perkinsons,” Maddix said.
What: Columbus Human Rights Commission annual meeting
When: 6:30 p.m. May 11
Where: The Commons, 300 Washington St.
How much: Advance tickets are required and are $30 per person. Tickets may be purchased at the Columbus Human Rights Commission office at Columbus City Hall, 123 Washington St. or online at columbus.in.gov/human-rights/. Tickets for tables of eight are available. Deadline for purchasing tickets is 5 p.m. May 5.
Note: Early ticket purchase is recommended. If dinner tickets sell out, a waiting list will be created in the event of ticket cancellations. The Commons is wheelchair-accessible.
“He’s very passionate and dedicated to what he does in the community.”
— Former Columbus Police Chief Jason Maddix on William R. Laws Human Rights Award winner Larry Perkinson
Title: Employee and student assistance coordinator for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.
Education: Bachelor’s of English from Indiana State University, Master’s of English from Indiana University.
Career: Perkinson has been an educator for 41 years, with all but four years of that in Bartholomew County. He spent his early years in education as an English teacher in Jennings County Schools.
Family: The Columbus native lives in Columbus with his wife, Julie. They are the parents of five daughters, one of whom died in 1997.