Memories of Bill Perkins

Remarks at the Bill Perkins Memorial on February 28, 2012

Perkins in SMC officeI wanted to share some thoughts and memories of Bill. In spite of a long tradition of thinking up nicknames for Bill like “Perkolate” or “Doc Rock,” I never ended up called him anything but “Dr. Perkins.” He, however, preferred “Bill.” Today, I will finally honor that wish.

I met Bill in my second semeter at Saint Mary’s College, back in 2004. Like many freshmen, I had no idea what I was doing. Intimidated by my opportunities, I did what I thought was best, which was to switch my major like a musical chair, rotate between advisors like a frenetic hummingbird, and drop and grab classes like they were hot potatoes. I was confused; almost as confused then as I am now. Yet, no matter what I put down through that misnamed GaelExpress labyrinth of A, B and E requirements, there was one thing that everyone agreed upon: “You’ll want to take Bill Perkins’s Introduction to Geology.”

And for the first time since becoming a teenager, everyone was right. Bill’s class was the clencher which made me finally realize what major I wanted, once and for all – at least until I took Carla’s Calflora class a year later. But beyond the subject material, Bill was not only a delight to listen to, he was invested in making you interested in geology, no matter what it took.

Bill made it his personal mission to see that everyone got an A in that class, even if he had to give you the answers to the test beforehand. Of course, you still had to work for it, and so did he. Hours after class, he’d be in his office re-delivering the lecture at a pace compatible for such slow learners as myself; and other groups whom he fondly dubbed such names as “The Basketball Club,” “The Volley Ball Club” and “The Varsity Club.”

But what was particularly unique about Bill is that he knew the pleasant, affable way to win respect and motivate people. Soon it was clear why so many of his students considered him their “on-campus dad.” And a very cool on-campus dad at that. Bill had experiences and accomplishments from all over the world that few men have ever lived to tell about and fewer men have ever lived to tell about with modesty.

Bill has degrees from Princeton, Harvard and Chevron; he’s seen more countries than anyone else I know; and he is truly a master of all trades. And yet, it didn’t matter what his credentials were: more than a geologist, a doctor or a professor, Bill was a gentleman. He was equally genteel and polite with his students as he was with colleagues as he was with strangers on the street. It was no wonder that everyone knew and loved him.

Before I knew it, I had struck up a friendship with Bill which became very useful in surviving college. Not only would Bill go to bat for his students if there were problems with registration or business matters, but being friends with Bill included such perks as free lunches at the Ranch House Café or Terzetto’s. Sometimes, he would even take us to the faculty cafeteria, where he’d wink at the staff and say with his unrefusable trademark grin, “He’s with me,” in such a way that you knew that any friend of Bill Perkins was a friend of theirs.

That was true for many people. Just walking down the hall with Bill, you’d meet and befriend a dozen passers-by. Bill introduced me to many of the closest friends I have today. Long after I graduated, Bill continued to broker friendships—if not in person, by email. Even posthumously, Bill has led me to new friends.

With all things, however, there were consequences to being a friend of Bill Perkins. Like a parent, Bill knew what was good for you even if you didn’t want it; and you could never find it in your heart to turn him down. And that’s how I got myself enrolled into sticky situations like Upper Division Hydrology on top of six other classes my final semester; or floundering at meetings with the Bay Area Automated Mapping Association; or demanding contingency plans from county water agencies and their clients.

One summer, for some seemingly unexplainable reason, Bill hired me as a researcher with the Contra Costa Economic Partnership, for projects that no undergraduate biologist had any business being part of, on a Saint Mary’s-based squad which Bill unassumingly penned “The Water Task Force,” or “The WTF.”

Like I said, Bill Perkins was a master of all trades, and I was not. Yet, somehow, in the end, Bill was right. All of those projects eventually came to fruition in some way that has helped me down the road.

None was as memorable as the summer of 2005. Back in 2005, the school was applying for a grant from the Keck Foundation, which included a plan to turn the Saint Mary’s wetlands into a living laboratory. To show that we could make use of the wetlands, Bill volunteered to jumpstart a multidisciplinary project to study them.

Bill was going to be the first man to map the Saint Mary’s wetlands since their heyday as a Naval Aquatics Testing Reservoir, some 50 years ago. My friend Giuliana and I were going to study its biological components. We didn’t realize what that meant at the time, but it resulted in a summer devoted to whacking through willow thickets and stinging nettles; Bill determined to conquer with his aerial maps and a GPS; Giuliana with calipers and a transect tape; and I with a 1948 industrial-steel machete.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, the Saint Mary’s wetlands is that nearly impenetrable willow-choked swampy area between here and Bollinger Canyon Road, the one with all the poison oak, mountain lions and quicksand—trust me.

It was nothing short of a small adventure. To pass the time, Bill entertained us with exciting tales of his days as a Chevron geologist, which (as we learned) did not mean identifying rocks for the oil companies but involved everything from evading the Japanese Navy to dodging poison darts in New Guinea.

You can imagine how easy it was for Giuliana and me to pretend we were on one of Bill’s Chevron expeditions, searching for oil in a godforsaken Burmese jungle—complete with muddy pitfall traps, deadly thorn bushes and poison-dart newts. As we heard more stories, we grew increasingly convinced that, perhaps, our swampland exploration was a front for something connected to the CIA, which Agent Perkins wasn’t telling us about. After all, how could this GPS-wielding, map-designing, Naval lake-surveying pluralist, with all his fancy creds, skills, foreign languages and incredible stories, be anyone but a real-life James Bond?

Of course, whenever we asked if this was true, Bill would only smile that all-knowing smile and say, “I can neither confirm nor deny.”

That’s just one of the things I’ll never truly know about the real Bill Perkins. Unfortunately, there remain so many things that I still had hoped to ask him, tell him and thank him for. And although I would give anything to be at lunch with Bill right now, pummeling him with questions while he tells me his golf scores over a BLT and an Arnold Palmer, I am lucky to have learned so much in the eight years I knew him, for which I am eternally grateful.

Bill’s legacy is ever-present in our daily lives. He helped many of us graduates find our jobs; I think of him every day when I drive past serpentine or chert outcrops; and I recall him on the many adventures, both small and extraordinary, I’ve had since that first summer in the swamp. Even objects like rocks , maps, my over-cluttered computer desktop and the monthly ESRI newsletter he signed me up for years back—things that might have been boring were it not for Bill Perkins—elicit fond memories of that scholarly gentleman.

Finally, I’d like to share three words that I think about every day, which Bill told me over and over again. It’s the easy answer to a riddle, which seems to apply itself in so many ways. Whenever I stumble upon a quandary, or come across an obstacle, or get stuck in a hard place, those three words remind me how simple the solution can be. Because, no matter how many times I’ve found an aggregate [like this] and wondered what it was — and poured and poured over it to the point of giving up — whenever I’ve showed it to Bill, asking: “Dr. Perkins, can you help? I can’t figure it out. Can you tell me what this is?” he would invariably look back at me with a fatherly grin and reply, “That’s a rock.”

By Ivan Parr


[Note from Ivan Parr: The following people could not be here today and send their condolences: Douglas Long, Michael Deneiu, Giuliana Patrito, Laura Jamison, Corrine Simpson, Jes Malespin; and many, many others whom I’ve spoken to since Bill’s passing. One particular friend is missing, and that’s Susan Parr, who first introduced me to Bill, and who grew up in his own hometown. Regretfully, she had a performance to give tonight, but will be dedicating a musical piece in his honor.]