WILLACOOCHEE SAYS GOODBYE TO ITS 1st BLACK AVIATOR
By CONNIE PRATER
For the Tifton Grapevine
As a child growing up in rural Willacoochee, Donn Perkins looked to the skies above his wooden schoolhouse and saw jets flying through the clouds.
"One day," the youthful Perkins told his friends, "that will be me."
He made good on that promise and more.
The bright young man who spoke with a booming voice and excelled at everything he attempted got his
"He was the first black pilot out of Willacoochee, Ga.," the town's mayor, Samuel Newson, said. "We are very, very proud of him."
On Sunday, Aug. 28, the Atkinson County community paid tribute to their "Hometown Hero" in a memorial service at the Willacoochee Elementary School gymnasium. Perkins, 62, died Aug. 18 after a battle with cancer. Following the memorial service, he was laid to rest not far from his childhood home.
The mayor said it was important for Willacoochee to honor Perkins because he represented hope for other young people that if he could do it, they could too.
Flying airplanes was a lifelong pursuit for Perkins. Being a pilot wasn't work for him, said his cousin Otis Johnson of Atlanta: "The things that he got paid for were things that he truly enjoyed doing ,and he would have done it for nothing. ...
That's something that we all should strive to do: Find something that you truly enjoy doing and then go out and do it."
Perkins was a true friend to his hometown people, said Martha Carswell, a childhood schoolmate and a retired Coffee County middle school teacher. Perkins often spoke to her students during Black History Month.
"My eighth graders were so fascinated with him. They said, 'Miss Carwell, we don't believe he's from Willacoochee. He's a pilot.' I said, 'What? Willacoochee can produce good people.'"
Perkins believed in giving back. Over the years, he sponsored graduates, funded scholarships, paid for weddings and provided financial assistance to those in need. He was a frequent guest speaker for school children, urging them to reach for the sky.
Willacoochee friends described how they would look skyward and see a plane flying low above the city. One Sunday morning, an A-7 military plane circled all of the churches.
"He would do that quite often," Carswell recalled. "He would fly low around the churches to say hello. He would fly over the house to say hello." Strangers might have wondered about it, but, as Carswell said, "We knew when we saw that plane it was Donn."
Perkins was inspired by another Willacoochee aviator: Maj. Gen. John Robert Paulk, a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who flew over the city from Moody Air Force Base when Perkins was a youth.
"He was always the guy that Donn wanted to pattern himself after because Donn wanted to fly," said Perkins' cousin Otis Johnson of Atlanta. He said Perkins told him he got a chance to meet his boyhood idol years later at an air show.
Johnson said Perkins debated whether to join the Air Force or Navy, but finally settled on the Navy. He was a Navy lieutenant and bomber pilot from 1976 to 1983, flying missions that required him to take off and land A-7 attack planes on the USS Eisenhower, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Perkins went by the call sign of "Black Duck" -- a reference to nicknamed he picked up in school because, as friends say, he walked like a duck.
When his Navy stint ended, Perkins continued to soar, becoming a commercial airline pilot for US Airways. He eventually made his home in Charlotte, N.C.
"He flew high, but he never looked down on me," the Rev. Harvey Williams, pastor of House of Deliverance Church in Willacoochee, said in the eulogy. "This guy was always humble and kind, never forgetting where he came from."
Born in Coffee County in 1954, Perkins spent his boyhood in Willacoochee. He moved to Atlanta with his mother while still in school and graduated from Atlanta's Southwest High School in 1971. He was an ROTC battalion commander, the highest ranking ROTC person at the school, said Charles Prince, one of about a dozen Atlanta area classmates who attended the memorial.
"Donn became a very accomplished man," Prince said. "But one thing about him, Donn never changed. He was the same lovable guy from Willacoochee, Ga."
Perkins went on to Fort Valley State University, where he received his bachelor's degree in education in 1975.
The aviation community paid tribute to Perkins during an Aug. 26 funeral in Charlotte. Afterward, his casket was flown from Charlotte to Jacksonville in preparation for burial at Oak Grove Church cemetery in Pearson.
Said his brother Larry Perkins Sr. of Atlanta: "Donn wanted to come home. ... He had one more flight to take."