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FBC Foley member, UM professor uses tricks, toys to teach childrencomment (0)

November 14, 2002

By Alicia Morris

What do a yo-yo champion, professional acrobat, award-winning maker of children’s toys and 40-year member of the University of Mobile (UM) faculty have in common?

They’re all the same person — Gene Perkins, professor of human performance and exercise science at UM.

Perkins, the only remaining charter employee still on the UM faculty, will turn 75 in February 2003.  His action-packed life showcases how one’s determination to succeed can lead to great things.

“I’ve always been determined and driven to do something better and better,” said Perkins, as he unpacked his box of handmade wooden toys, including a smaller box filled with yo-yos.

A member of First Baptist Church, Foley, and a resident of Montrose, Perkins has used his craft to entertain many children. His toys are used in children’s classes at his home church as well as Cottage Hill Baptist Church.

Perkins said that as a child he made his own toys, but a store-bought yo-yo would turn out to be his favorite.

“At the time I was growing up, the only toys you had were the ones you made yourself,” said Perkins, as he began to perform tricks with his handmade yo-yo. “The yo-yo was inexpensive then — around 25 cents — but it was only available at a particular season. Toys were only in the stores at Christmas­­time.”

At the age of 14, Perkins won the Mobile City Yo-Yo Championship, sponsored by the Goody’s Yo-Yo Company.

Perkins, who lived in Toulminville, took the bus to the competition instead of riding his bike, because he was “determined to ride home on the grand prize, a brand new Schwinn bicycle.” The competition required the participants to perform several tricks, with  the last trick determining the ­winner. Participants had to make the yo-yo loop as many times as possible.

According to Perkins, one young boy looped his yo-yo 290 times before quitting. Perkins was tapped on the shoulder when he had looped 300 times, but he continued to loop it for a total of 500 times, and rode home on his new Schwinn bicycle.

Developing his act

When Perkins entered high school he was four feet six inches tall and weighed 76 pounds.  There were more than 4,000 students in the school, and he was one of the smallest. So, he looked for an “equalizer” and found it in gymnastics and weight training. 

Later on in life, while serving in the U.S. Navy, Perkins worked part time as a professional acrobat, performing in circus stage acts for 12 years. He used his woodworking ability, honed from his childhood, to make all of his props.

Today, in his office in Pharr Gym at UM, there is a photo of Perkins standing on one finger on top of a stack of blocks. Before incorporating the blocks, his act involved balancing on one finger on top of a Coke bottle.

While teaching at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Perkins coached gymnastics for seven years.

In 1982, Perkins told his wife, Susan, that he wanted something nice to display on a shelf in his study and was considering carving a miniature train. Susan laughed at the idea.

Spurred on by his determination to succeed, Perkins made an elaborate train set from mahogany, birch, walnut, oak and maple wood for his study. Encouraged by his family, he made additional toys, including a large mahogany rocking horse for his son’s first Christmas in 1983.

That same year, an art professor at UM, Mack Clark, encouraged Perkins to showcase his woodworking at local craft shows.

Now, 20 years later, Perkins attends approximately five craft shows in southern Alabama each year and sells his elaborate trains, planes, yo-yos, cars, guns, ball and cups, drag racers, and other handcrafted wooden toys. Prices range from a 75-cent spinning top to a $125 six-car train set.

His detailed crafts have not gone un­noticed. He received the “Award of Distinction for Children’s Crafts” for the fourth consecutive year at the Jubilee Arts and Crafts Festival held in Daphne.

“I enjoy woodworking. It keeps me out of trouble sometimes. But, most of the fun is being able to give them out to kids,” said Perkins as he continued to loop his handmade wooden yo-yo, still his favorite toy.

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