Statesmen Series Remembers Carl D. Perkins

RICHMOND, Ky. – On a warm August day in 1984, political giant Carl Dewey Perkins was laid to rest at Mountain Memory Gardens in Hindman, Kentucky. Political heavyweights Senator Ted Kennedy and House Speaker Tip O'Neill were among those people who made the arduous journey to Knott County.

For 35 years Carl Perkins had been among the most effective Congressmen in Washington. Former National Education Association President Mary Futrell called him "the father of virtually every postwar federal education program."

There's a lot of evidence to back up that claim. Perkins helped create programs for vocational and technical education. His name is associated with college student loan and school lunch programs, mine safety and other landmark initiatives. How did the soft-spoken, unassuming man from a poverty-stricken district in east Kentucky do it? For the people who knew him, the secret of Perkins' success was simple.

"Once Ol Carl got something in his head that he wanted, he wouldn't let go," said Ben Reeves, political advisor to Perkins from 1966 to 1984.

That doggedness, said Reeves, was ingrained in the congressman's character. Reeves recalls a story told by former Kentucky Governor Ned Breathitt. Breathitt was with Perkins when the congressman placed a call to then-President Lyndon Johnson at his Texas ranch saying he had an urgent matter he wanted to discuss. Perkins had interrupted a holiday gathering of family, and Reeves says LBJ was not happy. But, the President got on the phone anyway.

"Perkins began the conversation, Mr. President get you a tablet and a pencil, I've got some things I you to do for me. Ned said he could hear in the background, Lyndon mumbling, get me a goddam pencil," said Reeves.

If accurate, that story speaks volumes. There was Kentuckian Carl Perkins strong arming LBJ THE political arm twister of his day. Reeves says Perkins used that same button holing style with other members of Congress until he got their support.

That legendary persistence didn't always pay off. One of Perkins few legislative disappointments was a proposed dam in the Red River Gorge. Strong opposition by environmentalists killed the idea.

But more often than not, Perkins' philosophy to "never take no for an answer" was successful. As chairman of the House committee on education and labor, the tall, genial Kentuckian had no problems seeking help from Republicans. Perkins' unpretentious approach was revealed in a 1979 interview on Kentucky Educational Television.

"It's an easy matter to get along with members of the United States Congress if you learn the congressmen, mix and mingle with them, sit down beside them on the floor and chat with them about different problems facing them and the problems that you're confronted with," said Perkins.

That approach, along with simply learning the names of his colleagues, Perkins contends, gave him influence. Although he seemed the ultimate people person, Perkins had no taste for the Washington social scene. He made the long drive home to Knott County most weekends. His idea of schmoozing was to go into people's homes, make small talk with parents and children, and compliment the cook. Perkins' down to earth manner reaped dividends in campaign fundraising.

"I have made it a point to learn the people throughout the congressional district, frequent visits to the district and I think that has been worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars to me, knowing people," said Perkins.

It wasn't long before the Perkins name and reputation discouraged would-be opponents, making fundraising unnecessary. His well-cultivated, face-to-face brand of politicking assured victory.

Respect for Perkins grew, not only at home but in Washington. Columnist Drew Pearson wrote in 1961 that "those who know Perkins call him the most honest member of Congress." He refused to take gifts, long before limits were placed on receiving them. Perkins purchased stamps from his own pocket to mail personal letters. He paid telephone bills for calls made from his congressional office that were not business-related.

"He was the essence of what a congressman ought to be," said longtime family friend, Hindman lawyer and businessman Bill Weinberg. For the six years, Weinberg has compiled information about Perkins, hoping to write a full biography. But the project will take more time than Weinberg has, so he's resigned to writing short articles.

Perkins contributions to America cannot be overstated. Without question the country is better off for his efforts. But sometimes success results in unintended consequences...and opens the door to criticism. Welfare programs Perkins created, critics say, also spawned a culture of dependency and corruption.

Bill Weinberg says that's nonsense.

"I'm sure there were some people who were getting' checks who didn't deserve em, but for every one person like that there were ten that were getting' them would not have any quality of life without em," said Weinberg.

And it's those people the people back home who genuinely needed the support.

"He did things for the 7th's district and of course in so doing he was helping the country, but I don't believe that was his real motive, he just didn't think that way he was the 7th district congressman," said Reeves.

From harsh critic to ardent supporter, no one can deny Carl Perkins got things done. The programs he helped create decades ago still help millions of Americans today.

And that probably explains why many eastern Kentuckians still hold Carl D. Perkins "Carl D" as they affectionately call him in high regard. The social programs Perkins fought for and won, are largely taken for granted these days. But his accomplishments cast a long shadow, much as a life-sized bronze statue of the man does today outside a courthouse in Knott County.