Education Matters: Remembering Doug Perkins

When Doug Perkins died May 6, the local community – indeed, the entire San Diego region – lost a dedicated public servant for children and a great champion for the underserved.

Locally, many knew Perkins as a long-time member of the Del Mar Union School District’s Board of Education and as an outspoken advocate for students. But there was so much more.

Perkins founded Pacific Gateway Group, a campaign and consulting firm, with two other partners in 1985 and became the sole owner in 1989, expanding the business to include public relations. PGG was recognized in 1993 by San Diego Business Journal as San Diego’s fastest growing public relations firm.

By 2000 the company had offices in Sacramento and Mexico City.

Perkins was early to understand the importance of San Diego’s proximity to Mexico and the need for cooperation between the two border regions. As one of a group that founded the South County Economic Development Council, he served from 1990 to 2004 as its executive director.

Current SCEDC president and chief executive officer Cindy Gompper-Graves said Perkins was key in creating the council, which came about because the South Bay area “was not getting enough attention in San Diego.”

“He was a visionary and would see opportunities when others didn’t,” she said. “Now it’s the thing to do, to be binational, but back then it wasn’t.”

A major South County EDC accomplishment was the opening last December of the Cross Border Xpress, a pedestrian walkway connecting the Tijuana airport to the United States.

Gompper-Graves said Perkins conceived of the need for the bridge and worked tirelessly to bring it to fruition. The project was more than 15 years in the making.

“It’s a huge success and is nothing short of miraculous” that it was completed, she said, given the Herculean efforts it took to work with major bureaucratic entities.

“Doug understood that many opportunities exist in binational collaboration,” she said.

The SCEDC is now firmly established as a key regional player, with the Port of San Diego, San Diego County, and the cities of San Diego, Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach and National City as members.

Gompper-Graves called Perkins a kind person and hard worker who didn’t brag about his work but “just went in and got it done.”

Workforce Partnership

The San Diego Workforce Partnership was another of Perkins’ passions.

Judy Lawton, owner and CEO of The Lawton Group, worked with Perkins in the early years of the SDWP, which funds training programs for workers for jobs that meet the needs of employers in the county.

“Doug was in, out and around the SDWP for so many years,” Lawton said. “He was well-known and very well-respected.”

The two met while working together in 1978 at a training agency, “which was for each of us the beginning of our adventures into making life better for economically disadvantaged people in our community,” she said.

“He was smart, savvy, chronically tardy and always a champion to others in need,” Lawton said. “His tenacity and passion served him well, and he should be remembered for all the good he accomplished for so many.”

After hearing the news of Perkins’ death, San Diego City Councilmember Mark Kersey tweeted, “Many in SD may not know how important Doug Perkins was to the work of the SD Workforce Partnership. Great workforce mind/partner. He’ll be missed.”

Taxpayers Association

The San Diego County Taxpayers Association also benefited from Perkins’ involvement.

“When I took over the SD Taxpayers in December 1994, Doug joined our board,” said Scott Barnett.

Barnett, who began his political career in 1984 when at age 21 he was elected to the Del Mar City Council, served seven years as executive director of the SDCTA.

In 1995, the SDCTA’s 55th year, Barnett wanted to do an event to recognize the milestone. It was Perkins, he said, who came up with the idea of doing a local version of then Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Awards to highlight government waste.

Thus was born the SDCTA’s now famous Golden Fleece and Watchdog annual awards dinner.

“If not for Doug, the awards would never have happened,” Barnett said.

Perkins appreciated how the SDCTA would “really do our homework,” he said.

He said Perkins would often say, “The essence of democracy is informed dissent.”

“I have plagiarized this line many times,” Barnett said.

Barnett was president for two years of the San Diego Lincoln Club, served one term as a trustee for the San Diego Unified School District, founded TaxpayersAdvocate.org in 2003, and has worked as a political consultant and public policy guest lecturer at local universities.

“In 30 plus years of working in politics, Doug was without doubt one of the most decent guys I've ever met,” he said.

County Board of Education

Perkins was a member of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce Education Committee, served for three years on the Executive Committee of the California State Council on Vocational Education, and was a board member of the Able-Disabled Advocacy group.

He was also a Deacon of the Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, where he was a dedicated volunteer for numerous causes.

In 1985, he began the North County Hispanic Chaplaincy, to assist community members, particularly residents of Eden Gardens, attain legal citizenship.

He was also involved in the Military Families Ministry, which would collect used furniture from nearby communities and transport the items to Camp Pendleton where military personnel could take what they needed.

And he started the Career Counseling Ministry, to advise and assist people needing jobs.

His wife Carolyn said he had been appointed an Elder, but just before his stroke in Feb. 2015 so was never able to serve.

Perkins also never had a chance to serve on the San Diego County Board of Education, to which he had just been elected in Nov. 2014.

At that time, Perkins was in his seventh year as a trustee for the Del Mar Union School District, when he decided to run for the county board of education’s District 5 seat, replacing Sue Hartley.

Although his opponent was endorsed by a long list of big names in education and benefited from teachers’ union money, Perkins won 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent.

He was well-known in the Del Mar community, but his name was not generally recognized throughout the rest of District 5, which stretches from Del Mar to Fallbrook along the coastal region.

Carolyn said they did little fundraising and spent next to nothing on the campaign. “I never thought he had a chance,” she said.

Perkins’ improbable win was a resounding defeat for the union-backed candidate, and victory for a man who believed in strong fiscal oversight, fairness, and nonpartisan decision-making in the best interests of students.

Del Mar board

Perkins was appointed to an open seat on the Del Mar school board in May 2008, and successfully ran to retain the seat in the 2008 and 2012 elections.

One driving principle guided him as a school board member: “He was concerned that money not be spent at the administrative level but that it gets to the kids,” Carolyn said.

All three of the Perkins children attended Del Mar Heights School from kindergarten through sixth grade. Heights principal Wendy Wardlow remembers Perkins both as a father (“He was so proud of his children,” she said) and as a trustee.

“Doug was vibrantly involved with everything we were doing,” Wardlow said. “He tried to probe deeper into issues and did his due diligence.”

She said he would meet with her and other principals and ask for their perspectives.

“We didn’t always agree, but I could talk to him and he would listen,” Wardlow said.

She said he was thoughtful, respectful, and “passionately engaged with working with youth.”

“He influenced me as a school leader,” she said. “I’ve tried to be a better leader because of Doug.”

Although a staunch Republican, Perkins’ friends crossed all political boundaries.

Doug Rafner, president of the DMUSD school board, said it was a privilege to work with Perkins on the board for more than four years.

“Doug was a warm, kind, generous person, and a good friend,” Rafner said.

Perkins “held a torch for the conservative side of all things,” said Rafner, a registered Democrat. “On the surface, this was not ordinarily the makings of a great decision-making relationship. But you had to know who you were dealing with when you worked with Doug Perkins.”

Rafner said Perkins put students first in every decision he made and set aside ideological differences.

“Although it was easy for him to see things through his conservative lens on a subject, Doug would welcome other viewpoints,” he said. “He needed all the facts before he would respond or make a decision.”

“I think this was all part of what made Doug Perkins so special,” Rafner said. “We who sit on the school board in Del Mar, and those who make important decisions, should take a page out of the Doug Perkins handbook.”

DMUSD superintendent Holly McClurg said, “Doug was a wonderful man, and I had such respect for him.” She called him an insightful and wise leader.

“DMUSD is better because of his strong leadership and his love for our district’s children, staff, and community,” McClurg said. “I was blessed to know Doug. He is truly missed in our community.”

San Dieguito

Perkins’ passion for public education reached beyond Del Mar. He was a frequent speaker at San Dieguito Union High School District board meetings, voicing fiscally conservative positions with respect and humor.

SDUHSD trustee John Salazar, friends with Perkins since 1986, called him “a good guy with a solid heart.”

SDUHSD superintendent Rick Schmitt, with whom Perkins disagreed on many issues, came to appreciate his candor and respectful manner.

“Doug was for kids, was proud of our schools, and always looked for the right community fit,” Schmitt said. “While I did not always agree with Doug’s ideas or politics, I always appreciated his involved and informed activism.”

The Perkins children all attended San Dieguito schools from seventh through 12th grades.

Tragic loss

Perkins, who beat cancer when he was just 28, grew up in New Jersey and received his undergraduate degree in Spanish and counseling from Bucknell University and his Masters degree in education from the University of Maryland.

Carolyn and Doug were married 23 years ago at the Solana Beach Presbyterian Church after eight years of dating.

Besides his family and conservative causes, Carolyn said Doug had three other passions: the beach, public education, and music.

He loved almost every genre of music, Carolyn said. “He loved the Grammys and loved to keep up with the kids’ music,” she said. His favorite band was the Rolling Stones, and he went to all their concerts.

A friend once told her that no one ever said a bad word about Doug. He was loyal, a hard worker, trustworthy and honest, she said.

“He could not tolerate dishonesty,” Carolyn said. “You never wondered if what he’s saying is true.”

Although she said he did not have any serious underlying health issues, the stroke came without warning during a Sunday morning church service on Feb. 8, 2015.

That was four days after they had returned from a two-week family reunion in New Zealand, followed by a second honeymoon in Tahiti.

Despite doctors in church who tended to him quickly and a fast-response ambulance that transported him immediately to the hospital, it was a massive hemorrhagic stroke from which he never recovered.

Carolyn said she was touched by so many people who donated their time to her so she could take catastrophic leave from her job to be with Doug in those first weeks and months.

They did that because they loved him, she said. “He was one of the finest people.”

Perkins lived for 15 months after his stroke, Carolyn said, but never had a good quality of life. He died May 6 at the age of 65.

He is survived by his wife, three children, one sister, two brothers, and his father Harry Perkins, age 91, who resides in New Jersey.

There are many reasons why Perkins’ death is tragic. His family’s pain is immeasurable. And for the public who can no longer benefit from his intelligence, passion, wisdom and charm, we’ve lost a powerful voice for children and for the poor and struggling among us. The loss is irreplaceable.

A celebration of Doug Perkins’ life will be held Friday, June 10 at 2 p.m. at the Solana Beach Presbyterian Church at 120 Stevens Avenue in Solana Beach.

Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

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