Not many events occurred during the last half of the 20th century that Tom Perkins can’t describe in detail.
Odds are, he was there.
During his 30-year career as a sound engineer for CBS News, Perkins flew on Air Force One with no less than four American presidents — Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter. He called poet Carl Sandburg a friend. He worked closely with Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, the two most legendary figures in the history of broadcast journalism.
When Cronkite announced the death of President John F. Kennedy on that terrible November 1963 afternoon, it was Perkins who put the sound on the air.
When an attempt was made on President Ford’s life in 1975, Perkins was close enough to hear the shots.
Afterward, Perkins followed the presidential motorcade to the airport at more than 120 mph.
He covered Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral and Watergate.
No three history books could hold the stories that Perkins can tell from first-hand experience. Incredibly, he remains unchanged by all that he’s seen and done in his life. Surely, though, he had a sense at the time that he was doing something special, right?
“Not at the time … it was a job,” Perkins admits. “It didn’t impress me that much back then. I didn’t realize what I was doing (was out of the ordinary). It was my job. That’s the way I looked at it.”
If anybody’s qualified to comment on the state of the media these days, it’s Perkins. He doesn’t like what he sees.
“(Murrow) was the most thorough and unbiased of all the reporters,” Perkins says. “Too many of them … they had their leanings. They expressed their personal opinion as much as they reported the news. That’s a problem today. We’re not getting the news. We’re getting the reporter’s opinion, rather than the news.”
Perkins chatted with presidents. He provided sound for an interview with gangster Willie Moretti. He’s been to too many White House gala events to count.
But of all the people among whom he mixed and mingled, Carl Sandburg seems to have left the biggest impression. After taking part in a lengthy series of interviews with Sandburg conducted by Murrow for his iconic “See It Now” show, Perkins later returned to the writer’s western North Carolina home several times for personal visits.
On Perkins’ bookshelf are Sandburg’s complete works. One volume, given to him by the poet, is signed, “For Tom Perkins … A man of sound principles and worthy of trust … Carl Sandburg.”
“He was so down to earth,” Perkins remembers. “He was just a man that you would like, if you ever met him. I wasn't into poetry at all. I wasn’t a reader until I got to know him.”
Today, at 91, Perkins is an active member of Maplewood Baptist Church in Yadkinville. He still bakes and cooks for the staff and residents of the nursing home where his wife, Jamie, lived until her death a few years ago.
Living within several hundred yards of daughter Carolyn Graham, son Tommy and their spouses, Perkins also has grandchildren and great-grandchildren close by to keep him on the go.
There is nothing quite like “Papa” Perkins’ smile and the gleam in his eyes as he tells a joke. Have you heard the one about? … never mind. Just know that when Tom Perkins tells a joke — or plays some sort of trick — it’s a good one.
That he’s an absolute spitfire goes almost without saying for the members of Maplewood.
“From his humble beginnings to traveling around the globe with world leaders, Mr. Perkins has remained committed to putting a smile on the faces of people,” says Jimmy Lancaster, pastor at Maplewood. “In our high-tech and impersonal style of communicating, he still believes the real way to truly make a difference in our world is one hug at a time.”