Jack Perkins said his occupation was “island living.”
The former NBC newscaster and war correspondent and, more recently, host of “A Gulf Coast Journal,” died early Monday at his home on Casey Key. He was 85.
Born Dec. 28, 1933, in Cleveland, Ohio, he met his wife Mary Jo in Cleveland where he got his start in broadcasting. Working for a local television station where he was able to cover the famous Sam Sheppard murder case in 1954, he missed so much of his senior year at Case Western Reserve University that he had to repeat it to earn his degree.
During the next quarter century, as a television journalist with NBC, he worked with David Brinkley on national news, served as a war correspondent, was a commentator, and, with his golden voice, earned additional fame as the host of “Biography” on A&E.
At 54 he retired, moving from California to an uninhabited island in Maine with Mary Jo.
The Burbank Leader described him as “one of the founding fathers of TV journalism, He helped give it direction and purpose.”
Though retired, he and Mary Jo did not just build a cabin and live on Bar Island, they researched its history for it had been inhabited 100 years earlier. The research yielded a book written by Jack and illustrated by Mary Jo, “Parasols of Fern — A Book About Wonder.” It was published by Acadia Publications in 1994. Back cover blurbs praising the book were written by Sen. William S. Cohen, News anchor David Brinkley and Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary.
That is another sample of the diverse people with whom he interacted throughout his life. In the notes about himself on the book jacket, he mentioned a few career highlights such as contributing television essays to PBS’s MacNeil-Lehrer Newshow as “avocations.” Mary Jo, an artist, illustrated the book.
In his short bio for that book, the author said his occupation was “island living.”
In 2000, the Perkins moved to Casey Key, became active in Venice Presbyterian Church and became close friends of John and Suzie Seerey-Lester who were neighbors.
“Jack was a modest man about the dignitaries and the stars he interviewed over the years — he was definitely not a name-dropper, although he could have been because he interviewed most of the rich and famous of our era.”
One of his most famous interviews was of Sirhan Sirhan, following the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
By 2004, he had become so enamored of this area that he went back into television, filming “A Gulf Coast Journal” for the next nine years with producer Jen Noble for WEDU in Tampa. While most of his subjects were people and places along this coast, including organizations like the Venice Symphony, Art Center and Venice Theatre, he also covered individuals and places.
He wrote several other books. In those he combined photos and poems and his love of God.
Jack formed a club of friends who were into photography and art — the Phartists (photographers and artists). Members included Mary Jo, John and Suzie Seerey-Lester, Jerry and Bob Woelfel and Chuck and Maureen Snyder. They traveled together once a year to such places as Maine, Useppa Island and Arches, Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. They put on shows of their work depicting their various trips.
“Jack took mesmerizing photographs and accompanied them with thrilling and moving poems,” John Seerey-Lester said. “He called himself a ‘Poetographer.’
In 2012 his book, “Finding Moosewood, Finding God: What Happened When a TV Newsman Abandoned His Career for Life on an Island” was published in hard cover, featuring his photos and words.
He continued his writing and photographing as long as he could while dealing with the onset of Parkinson’s.
Jen Noble, his WEDU producer saw him three weeks before he died.
“I could tell he knew me when he smiled and I squeezed his hand,” she said. “Parkinson’s had taken its toll.”
“I have one of Jack’s cameras, a Wisener field camera and he gave me the microphone he used to voice our stories.”
“I worked with him from 2004-2012, nine years and of course we stayed in touch,” Noble said. “Working with him was the highlight of my career. He was 6’4” and I am 5’3” but he was so humble.
“He learned from David Brinkley how to write and say less and mean more. When I’d start writing a script, i could hear him in my head as he would deliver them so my words for him were tailored for Jack.
“He spoke in a rhythm. He made me the story teller that I am today.”
Paul Grove, the new CEO of WEDU in Tampa, was at that station when “A Gulf Coast Journal” was being filmed. Grove then went to WTCI in Chattanooga as the CEO. When the Perkins purchased a vacation home in northwest Georgia, Grove invited Jack to Chattanooga. He went there several times and donated many hours to the PBS station.
“Jack was a great friend of mine and really a transformation,” Grove said.
“We had him as the voice of WTCI so he was on every break and he was also the host and narrator of our documentaries — some of which went national. Even today, he is the voice of WTCI.
“He touched so many people — not just in journalism and as a feature reporter but as a Christian.”
Funeral plans had not been completed as this story went to press Tuesday afternoon. Farley Funeral Home in Venice is handling the arrangements. He was a member of Venice Presbyterian Church.