Kirby Perkins an A+ Type of Guy

Kirby, 1990s,
Carol Fatta photo

For most people life is short no matter how long you live. Hopefully, along the way you meet certain people who make your life better and will always remain in your memories.

I first met Kirby in 1978 when I was sitting at home with a cast up to my butt after having my Achilles tendon reattached from a racquetball injury. The best man at my wedding, John Premack, brought him by my Roslindale apartment while checking in on me.  I remember Kirby telling me a few years later he saw this fat guy walking around on crutches and wondered how I could have ever won two Pulitzers.

Kirby began as a “lumper,” which meant working with the photographers and carrying their tripod and lights, basically the photographer’s bitch.  He didn’t mind as he had big plans for himself.  He was just working his way around to the front of the camera and he went onto become one of Boston’s premier reporters.  I began working with him in 1983, when I switched from the newspaper to TV news.

Kirby became one of my favorite reporters to work with along Martha Raddatz (formerly Bradlee), Susan Wornick, and Jack Harper. There have been many others I enjoyed working with but if forced to choose those 4 were my favorites. Kirby was especially fun as he was smart and always willing to go with discovery as discovery is what made him as good as it got.

Although he did not like spot news the way I do, he learned to go with the flow.  One day we were in Medford on a story when I heard on the scanner a child was shot in Lynn. The last place Kirby wanted to go to would be this story but he sucked it up and did a great job.

Another time when we were looking for something to cover we ended up in Revere for several hours as an armed man was barricaded behind a door in an apartment building.  Those were the days when I knew most of the Revere cops and Kirby and I were on the 3rd floor just outside of the apartment where negotiations went on. My camera batteries did not last long and Kirby had to keep going down from the third floor to my car and get fresh batteries and tapes for me.  He kept a straight face and ended up doing about a 4-minute piece of the incident. In the end Captain Bill Gannon got onto the man’s apartment from an outside deck by climbing from one apartment to the next and charging into the apartment and capturing the man.  The suspect had a rifle, which could have taken us all out. The piece sang and was compelling from beginning to end.

Then there was the time Kirby had kidney stones and he researched procedures for treatment and we found ourselves with him in a tub of water at the MGH getting sonic blasts into his body while I filmed it all. Kirby was shy so getting in and out on camera in his bathing suit was probably harder to do then bare the pain of the stones.

He was so shy and when we would be in an elevator in a building I would go to work and introduce him to all the people in the elevator. Boy, did he hate that but I loved doing it.

He loved politics and especially loved going to Boston City Hall where he covered 3 Mayors of Boston (I have covered 4 as John Collins was still in office when I started).

He used the video of Kevin White running across the Boston Common so often it wore out the emulsion of the tape.

When Ray Flynn was resigning as Mayor to become Ambassador to the Vatican he stood on City Hall Plaza and said in his live shot “Elvis has left the building!”  Oh, the bosses did not like that one.Flynn leaving office wasn’t a bad thing for his favorite Mayor, Mayor Forever, Tom Menino, with whom he had a special relationship. During one awful winter in the early 90s when people could not get out of their houses or drive down the streets of Boston we did a story on snow plowing in the City.  It was the year the Globe compared the snow level to a Celtics basketball player’s height when measuring the inches of snow.  We went to the Mayor’s home area in Readville and Kirby climbed up to the top of at least a 15-foot snow pile and did his stand-up.  We then went to City hall to ask Mayor Menino what grade does the Mayor think he got that winter on clearing the streets of Boston.  Mayor Menino looked at Kirby and gave his very humble opinion, “A minus,” with his great big smile.

In his own words he dared to call Dapper O’Neil a racist and to call Whacko Hurley, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Czar, a Whacko.  Don’t think Dapper wouldn’t call him out every time he saw him after that, yelling “Hey Perkins” in his very loud obnoxious voice! Kirby smiled and ignored him.

When I was on my popcorn binge (one big bag a day) he would occasional buy me one just so he could poke fun at me. One day he went into a coffee shop to get himself a beverage and when he came back I had already finished the bag of popcorn.  He could not believe I could have eaten this bag so quickly so I told him I spilled it by mistake. He believed me, I think. From then I was known as the popcorn man to his daughter Alexis.

Deep down, he was really a West Coast hippie from the ‘60s. He loved to tell people how he lived in his Volkswagen bus while going to school at UCLA.  Boy, did he hate snowstorms and cold weather, but he loved the fact that snowstorms meant he could wear his college sweatshirt. His winter gloves came out as soon as the leaves began falling.  Colored leaves meant warmer clothes for Kirby.

His father in-law Andy Rooney, a long time holder of New York Giants season tickets, would invite Kirby to a game every year and every year Kirby would dread how cold he was going to be. I took him to Hilton’s Tent City where he bought the warmest boots he could find but of course he left them home when he drove down to New York for the game.

He used to carry cash all the time going to the bank on Monday’s and filling his wallet with what he needed.  You must remember it was already the late 80s and everyone had a debit card to get their cash out of a machine when needed. It took him a while but I showed him what he could do and he no longer needed to cash that check once a week.

He was a great barbeque man and got me sway from using lighter fluid to start my charcoals and bought me my first “kettle” for heating the coals.  He told me he used to throw in different woods for flavor on top of his charcoals and even used to eat his salads after the meal, European style.  I never could understand that.

Governor Mario Cuomo was rumored to be running for President of the U.S. and Kirby and I got on the road for a three-hour ride to Albany, NY.  We walked in during the middle of a press conference the Governor was holding.  Cuomo looked up and Kirby said “We are here from Boston to see if you are going to run for President!”   Cuomo looked at him and started discussing the Red Sox of which Kirby was a big fan.  All the other reporters just sat and watched.  Cuomo, by the way, did not discuss anything doing with running for President.  Kirby could talk to anyone intelligently.

A Red Sox fan he was and he loved Mo Vaughn.  He was his favorite, knew all of his statistics and the statistics of most of everyone else on the team.  He used to bet his colleague Jack Harper who was a big Baltimore fan every year on something to do with the two teams.

Kirby and Me, mid 1990s.

We had this gig called “Car Five,” it was about Kirby letting me drive where I wanted, listen to the radios and Kirby looking for interesting stuff.  We were on Dudley Street in Roxbury when he saw an apartment complex with sneakers hanging from the power lines. Next thing I know we were out of the car talking with the neighbors, making a great story. Shortly after the story, the City cleaned up their junkyard back yard and we were off to the next one.

Another day he sees a hut in Dorchester and this man half clothed sort of drunk and the conversation begins. Another great story, another Car Five in the books.

Our best one though was Mrs. Penta.  We took one of our many rides to my old haunts in Revere.  We were driving around my old neighborhood and I see this woman, Mrs. Penta.  Kirby says “stop the car” and the conversation begins. We walked around the neighborhood with her, came back to her house on another day and then we did this outstanding piece of where I grew up and what the neighborhood had become. It was everyone’s favorite Car Five.

We had a rhythm the way we worked. He had the mic in his hand and I could just circle him with the camera. I knew what he wanted and he knew what I was going to do. It was like magic and he took whatever I shot it made it wonderful TV.  No matter whom he worked with he never complained about the video. He would just get into the editing booth and make it come together.  His ego if he had one never got in the way.

Kirby loved to use compelling video multiple times in a story. If it was good he might use it two, even three times, something you don’t see anymore.  He told me when he was in an editing booth he wanted to grab the audio pot away from the editor and blast the video so when it came into people’s homes and there was important sound their TVs would vibrate.

He tried to help me with my English and my eating habits. Sometimes the English lessons worked. He told me his father in-law Andy Rooney and I had one thing in common; we both ate fast.  He would lecture me on eating slower so I would not be as hungry and I could lose weight. I am still trying both and losing the battle.

When he and the family moved to Connecticut he began living at Susan Wornick’s house several days during the week. He would not have her do his laundry so he brought it to a Laundromat near the station.  Every so often he would call me and say “I cannot get there to take it out of the dryer.” So there I was grabbing his dried clothes for him to wear.

When his mother was in a nursing home late in her life Kirby would call her everyday, tell her how much he loved her. I loved hearing the conversation.

He loved doing homework with is daughter Alexis and having a barbeque dinner ready for Emily when she got home from work.

He was really about discovery, thus the A+ series was born. He loved going into schools and sharing the stories of high school seniors, who achieved in the midst of adversity. He brought out the best in them and they made him feel good about what he was doing. He would have been a great teacher and it is fitting that the A+ Scholarship Fund is his legacy.

The day he died, I had seen him as he was leaving work for another tennis match at a tournament he was in. He told me he was doing great and would be playing in a final.

The next morning I was walking my dogs on West Beach in Beverly and as usual carrying my two-way radio when my colleague Warren Doolin called me around 6am to tell me Kirby might be mortally ill.  I went to the hospital to see him.  He was lying on the bed on life support. Emily talked to him and told him his friend Stanley was here to see him and, unfortunately, there was no response we could see.  I can only hope he got the message.

His father died when he was around 14 and his daughter Lexie was 14 when he died.

At his memorial, his mother in-law Marge said when Emily took him home for the first time she had never seen such a beautiful specimen of a man and not to let him get a way.

He was a wonderful man, friend, articulate, handsome, loving and never too big for his britches.  He got me and I miss him and he will always be a part of my memories.

I loved that man.

A Note From Kirby’s Wife, Emily Rooney, who is host/executive editor of Greater Boston, WGBH-TV.

Kirby started A+ in the mid 90’s as a way of recognizing kids who overcame extreme odds to excel academically. While Kirby considered himself to be a “jock” he believed too much emphasis and credit was lavished upon kids who perform well in athletics as opposed to the classroom. It means a great deal to me that the scholarship was started and continues in his name now 15 years after his death.  The kids are inspiring and I owe a debt of gratitude to all the CH5 people who have worked on this feature, especially David Brown.

To read more about The Kirby Perkins A+ Scholarship Fund please visit the website below:

A note from Mayor Thomas Menino:

Statement of Mayor Thomas M. Menino

Kirby Perkins A Plus Scholarship Fund Event

November 13, 2012

I want to thank all of the family and friends of the late Kirby Perkins for gathering tonight to support the scholarship fund that bears his name.  In particular I want to thanks Emily Rooney and the entire Scholarship Committee for the good work you have already done awarding over 186 thousand dollars among 74 students since 1998.  And thank you to Bill Fine and WCVB for hosting this event tonight and promoting the A Plus Scholarship and the student recipients on air.

Kirby was much more than a first class reporter; he was one of my closest friends.  He loved politics just like I do.  He was a “people person” much like I am.  And his skills with email were the same as mine: nonexistent.

Seriously though, Kirby gave me some very good advice early on in my career.   He told me to take the issues seriously, but not to take myself all that seriously.  He told me that self-deprecation was often the best response for many situations especially at the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast.  And he was right, on this and so much more.

I’m sure you all could tell similar stories of how Kirby helped you.  Kirby meant so much to all of you and so much to this city.  That is why we must build up the Kirby Perkins A Plus Scholarship Fund.  So it can continue to help young people obtain that all important college degree, and so our city and the people living here always know what a special person Kirby was.

I thank you all for your generous contributions so far.  But I ask you to dig a little deeper and to go a little further.  That is what Kirby would have done for any of us, so let’s all do it for the scholarship that honors his legacy.


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