DENHAM SPRINGS -- For months after the coronavirus pandemic swept the country, Arthur Perkins could be found in the same spot every Sunday — the altar.
A lifelong member of Roberts United Methodist Church, the city’s oldest church and first African American church, Perkins would arrive at the church every Sunday morning, even though in-person services had been shut down to slow the spread of the virus. After saying a prayer at the altar, he’d then set the table for any member who wanted to come pray or leave an offering.
The Sunday ritual usually lasted around two hours each week, longtime friend and colleague Fred Banks told The News.
“He would do that from 9:30 in the morning until right at 11:30 or 12,” Banks said. “He did that every Sunday since we’ve been down. He just wanted to be in church.”
Those Sunday morning prayer sessions came to an end last week, when Perkins was “called home.”
Perkins, a longtime educator and Denham Springs City Council member who served his community for decades, recently became one of the latest Livingston Parish residents to succumb to the effects of the novel coronavirus, which has now claimed the lives of 47 locals.
A lifelong resident of Livingston Parish, Perkins passed away from kidney failure, his family recently told The News. Before that, he had tested positive for COVID-19, becoming one of at least 2,300 Livingston Parish residents who have contracted the disease.
Though he mourned the passing of his “brother in Christ,” Banks said his friend was now in “a better place.”
“I really feel like the Lord took him in,” Banks said, “because he knew he had a wonderful servant coming home.”
Perkins, 85, is survived by his wife, Nora; one daughter, Tonya Perkins Woods (Marcel); four sons, Bishop Vernon Phillips (Debra), Arthur L. Perkins, Jr., Michael Perkins (Lisa) and Jeffery Perkins (Melissa); five grandchildren, Andre Perkins, Bianca Perkins (who he raised as his own), Cory Perkins, Jalen Antoine and Tiana Antoine; and one great-grandchild, Reagan Cerf.
He also leaves one sister, Helen Washington, and a host of other close family and friends. A private ceremony was held for the family on Friday following two days of drive-thru visitation. Perkins’ body was eventually laid to rest at Greenoaks Memorial Park in Baton Rouge.
Born in his mother’s house in February 1935, Perkins was a pillar of the Livingston Parish community, serving in a variety of roles for more than 60 years.
A former U.S. Army officer, Perkins worked as an educator for more than 40 years from 1957-98, mostly as principal of Albany High. In addition, he served on the Denham Springs City Council for 36 years, beginning in 1974 through 1990 and again from 1994 through 2014. He also served on the City Council in an interim role in 2017.
In recent years, Perkins ran a summer program at the L.M. Lockhart Center in Denham Springs and participated in other outreaches as an active member of Roberts United Methodist Church. He was also a founding member of the Denham Springs West Livingston Kiwanis Club 32 years ago and had “perfect attendance,” Banks noted.
“He never missed a meeting,” Banks said. “He’d say you can’t talk about something you’re not gonna participate in, and that makes a whole lot of sense.”
Perkins’ roots in Livingston Parish run deep.
Growing up, Perkins attended the former West Livingston High School, an all-black school that drew students from across the parish. He attended the school from grade one through high school, even playing on the school’s basketball team during high school.
Upon graduation, Perkins enrolled at Southern University and graduated in three years, obtaining his Bachelor of Science in Mathematics Education in 1958. He joined the ROTC while at Southern University and was later commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
He remained in the National Guard for 20 years and retired as a lieutenant colonel.
Perkins began teaching math at his alma mater in the late 1950s and was eventually named the school’s assistant principal and then principal before integration closed the school’s doors in 1969. He was later named principal of Albany High School when that school was integrated in 1970. He retired from the school system in 1998.
The praise has poured in for Perkins in the days since his death, with family members, friends, former colleagues and students, and other well-wishers taking to social media to speak on the man many have said “changed my life.” One person called Perkins a “hero of the Livingston Parish community,” while another said “he will be greatly missed, but lovingly remembered.”
The outpouring of support has even taken some in his family by surprise, such as sons Arthur, Jr., and Vernon, who recently spoke to The News in a phone interview about their father. Both said they’ve received countless calls from people expressing their gratitude for what their father did for them — including many things their father never spoke about.
“He was not the type of person to brag about anything he did for anybody,” Vernon said. “In fact, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t even know he had helped someone, but the phone calls I’ve had… just melted my heart to know what type of man he really was when nobody was looking.
“It makes us feel real good and real proud to know that we had a dad of this magnitude, who was a common man but like a giant in our area.”
That sentiment was echoed by Banks, who has known Perkins for most of his life.
“He was very community-minded, and there’s no question he left a legacy,” Banks said. “His interest was just really about what could be done to make Denham Springs and the parish better. He gave a lot of time, a lot of time he never got paid for, but I never heard him complain. He did it all because he felt it was right.”
Banks first met Perkins when he attended West Livingston High School. At the time, Perkins was Banks’ geometry teacher and even inspired Banks to major in math himself.
The two remained close throughout the years, Banks said. They took graduate level courses together at Southern University and Southeastern Louisiana University, taught together during the day and at night, attended the same church, and worked side-by-side in parks and recreation as well as the school system.
Banks even served as Perkins’ campaign manager when he ran for City Council, a position Perkins held for nine terms.
Banks described Perkins as “a good Christian man” who “always wanted to do the right thing.” Before swimming pools were integrated, Banks said Perkins would drive children to Abita Springs to learn how to swim, and he was “always concerned” with their education. In recent years, Perkins took to feeding area children through his summer program at the L.M. Lockhart Center.
“He represented the community,” Banks said. “He didn’t see stuff strictly from a white or black perspective. He looked at everything from a perspective of what was best for the community. I can say that he did a lot of good for a lot of people.”
While on the City Council, Perkins served as Mayor Pro-Tempore, liaison to the city's gas department, chairman of the Denham Springs Economic Development District, and chairman of the finance committee of the council.
In a statement last week, Denham Springs Mayor Gerard Landry called Perkins “one of the finest men I have ever known,” a “true community servant.”
Landry worked alongside Perkins in 2017 when the City Council unanimously agreed to appoint the longtime former member as interim councilman. Since becoming mayor, Landry said he often sought Perkins’ “service, his counsel, his respect, and friendship,” describing him as “a true gentleman, loved and highly respected by all who knew him.”
“You will be missed, my friend,” Landry concluded in his statement.
Though the kind words for Perkins have flooded social media and beyond over the last week, his sons recalled a time when Perkins was met with much resistance, particularly in the 1970s around the time of integration.
Perkins was initially assigned to a mathematics teaching position when integration came, despite having served as principal of West Livingston High School before its closing. A court order later ruled that the school system had to name Black principals, and Perkins was put in charge of Albany High, the first Black principal of a previously white school in Livingston Parish.
“Some people really didn’t like to see a principal that was Black,” Arthur, Jr., said. “So he met a lot of resistance when he got there. But he never gave up.”
Arthur, Jr., and Vernon said people would constantly try to “go over” their father’s head and file complaints to the School Board. The two recalled their father spending many afternoons meeting with board members “explaining his position” of “minor things” that people had taken issue with.
There were even times when people would make threats on Perkins’ life, leading him to bring someone else along whenever he met with the School Board.
Despite all that he faced, both sons said their father “never complained” or looked for retaliation.
“He eventually won them over,” Vernon said. “They got to see what type of man he was. Then when he got in the position and had the power and authority to get back at people that had done him wrong, he never did that. He’d never retaliate. He always showed them respect and kindness and treated them the way he wanted to be treated, white or Black.”
Added Arthur, Jr.: “He endured it all, but you wouldn’t know it because it wasn’t something he got up and talked about.”
Along with taking to social media, people were allowed to pay their final respects to Perkins during drive-thru visitation services last week at MJR Friendly Service Funeral Home in Denham Springs.
Family members and friends drove around the building to a window under a pavilion, where Perkins laid peacefully in a coffin adorned on both sides with a colorful arrangement of flowers.
Though their father has passed, Vernon and Arthur, Jr., said his legacy will live on in the community for “years to come.”
“Everything about my dad was about helping somebody else,” Arthur, Jr., said. “My dad was the only hero I had. I never had a sports hero or a political hero or superhero. To me, my dad was the epitome of what a man should be.”