By Renee Busby
Mobile Press-Register Staff Reporter
Courtesy of the Mobile Register 2011 © All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
(Published April 26, 2011)
University of Mobile professor Gene Perkins has walked up three flights of stairs on his hands to get to class. Before a crowd of his students he balanced upside down on one finger jammed into a Coca-Cola bottle. The day before his 80th birthday he challenged students to a physical stamina test - and won.
While former students recently spoke about Perkins' 48-year run at UM, his acrobatic feats aren't the things they will remember most about the physical education professor, who is retiring next month.
"He encouraged me to stay in school and helped me get a degree," said Butch Huff, who was among the charter students to step onto campus in 1963 when the school first opened.
Next month Perkins will end his 57-year career as a college professor, retiring from the university where he taught for almost five decades.
The 83-year-old Perkins is the last charter faculty member to retire.
When he began teaching at the school there were 12 full-time faculty members and 181 students. Today, there are 84 full-time faculty and 1,734 students.
Tuition was $450 annually for students that first year, compared to today's cost of $15,590 a year.
Weaver Hall, the main building, was the only building on campus.
Perkins remembers the time when the gymnasium was on the third floor of the lone building on campus. He helped plant the oak trees that line the main street leading into campus.
He also remembers using 16-millimeter projectors during lessons. While he still has the 16-millimeter film, the school library no longer keeps the projectors in stock.
The day after he graduated from Murphy High School in Mobile in 1945, Perkins enlisted in the Navy.
A physical training instructor, Perkins performed acrobatic stunts at USO shows while serving in the Navy.
Perkins came to the University of Mobile from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he was the gymnastics coach.
While he's spent more than half his life teaching physical education, Perkins actually skipped physical education class his senior year in high school because he thought it was a waste of time, he said.
If you couldn't meet a deadline for a paper due in his class he would give you more time if you went to him and talked to him first, said former student Mike Watkins, an assistant baseball coach for the Rams.
"You knew he cared," said Watkins.
"He was a student's teacher," said Huff.
And he was a teacher you could count on after graduation, he said.
"He recommended me for my first coaching job," said Huff, a former high school football coach.
Watkins also stayed in touch with his former professor. Perkins gave him favorable recommendations for every job he's held, according to the baseball coach.
Huff's wife, Nancy Huff, recalled that Perkins' class was "hard" but in the long run it ended up helping her.
"When I went to graduate school the courses I took were a breeze after learning from him," said Nancy Huff, who is now chair and a professor in the school's Department of Human Performance and Exercise Science.
She said he taught some of the toughest classes on campus - physiology, kinesiology and statistics.
Dressed in a suit and tie, Perkins sat quietly listening to stories from his former students.
When they finished he had one response.
"I don't feel like I've ever done anything special or unusual," said the retiring professor.
Dr. Gene Perkins at Pharr Gym on the University of Mobile campus