Educator and politician Annette S. Perkins of Blacksburg has been in the public eye for 50 years, and she credits her father, more than any other person, for inspiring her to a life of public service.
There were 27 years as a teacher, four years as principal, 15 years working with summer musicals in the community, seven years on the school board.
When she finishes her current term as a member of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors, she will have logged an additional 20 years of service in that elected position.
In separate seasons of her life, she has been chair of the county school board and the board of supervisors. And if her health holds up, she says, she will run again next term.
Perkins was Annette Seward when she was growing up in Portsmouth, Virginia near Smithfield. Her father worked in the Navy shipyards during World War II, sometimes seven days a week.
“I didn’t get money for getting ‘A’s on my report card,” Perkins recalled. “That was my job.”
She excelled, graduating Valedictorian of the Class of 1957 at Woodrow Wilson High School.
Perkins majored in religion and political science at Duke University, graduating in June of 1961.
“I could have stayed there forever,” Perkins said. “It was tough, but so inspiring.”
While at Duke, she was tapped for Phi Beta Kappa honorary fraternity. Only during piano lessons did Perkins experience a sense of failure.
“I could barely reach an octave,” she recalled. “Miss, you’re wasting your time,” her piano teacher told her.
She redeemed herself by learning to play the violin, on which she can still play “some simple things.”
“My mother said I knew by the time I was five that I wanted to be a teacher,” Perkins said.
She would gather neighborhood kids and pretend to be their teacher. She started nursery school (comparable to the pre-kindergarten of today) at age four. In elementary school, “They couldn’t keep me in my seat. I would go around to help others at their seats.”
Perkins’ father went into automobile sales when he left the navy. He took young Annette to Richmond when he had to travel there to get dealer plates. “You have to give back,” he told her, and he lived his lesson by serving on the town council and by helping poor families.
He was at a council meeting when he had a major heart attack. A second heart attack ended his life at age 50.
Daughter Annette was traveling Europe at the time and was scheduled to return home two weeks before the wedding that she and fiancée Bobby Perkins had been planning.
Members of her tour group “were not allowed to go to Berlin,” she said. “That was 1961 when the [Berlin} Wall went up. Everybody was so up tight. There were armed guards on the train.”
When she wired home for more money, she wondered why the money came from her mother and not her father. Her family had decided not to tell her of her father’s passing until her trip was over.
“I had a strange sensation,” she said. “When the tour director came to tell me, I said, ‘I already know.’” She and Bobby rescheduled their August wedding to October.
When Perkins started teaching in 1961, she had to prepare for five different classes. She had no planning period. Sometimes she also had to supervise a study hall at the back of her classroom that already held 30 students.
In 1962, Perkins and her husband relocated to Blacksburg so he could study architecture at Virginia Tech. At that time, the student body numbered about 5,000 students, most of whom were men, Perkins recalled.
She had no job until a late-night call landed her a position teaching math and social studies at the old Christiansburg High School. She was to start the next day. At the time, the road between Blacksburg and Christiansburg was only two lanes wide, she recalled.
Her career was interrupted when her first son Ray (now a resident of Roanoke) was on the way.
“They wouldn’t let you teach back then when you were pregnant,” she said. Tragically, she lost a second son who was born in 1964. “It was the worst thing you can imagine,” she recalled.
She returned to the classroom in 1968, teaching at Blacksburg High School, which was located on Main Street.
“I can’t say enough good about the people I taught with,” she said.
It was ironic when Harold Dodge became superintendent in Montgomery County. “I taught him in Portsmouth,” said Perkins.
These days Clay McCoy is director of human relations for the county schools. She taught him, too.
Perkins stopped teaching in the ‘90s. She wanted to spend time with a friend, Sandra Sumner, who had was battling personal illness. Perkins drove Sumner to Roanoke on Fridays for chemotherapy. Sumner passed away in 1993.
Perkins traveled, often representing her church as part of a homeland missions network. It wasn’t long before a friend called to offer her a position supervising student teachers for Radford University.
“By this time, I had a master’s degree and had taken classes for my doctorate but had put off writing my dissertation several times,” Perkins confessed. “If I wasn’t busy, I wasn’t happy,” she said, practically apologizing for a tendency to overextend herself.
After she was appointed to the Montgomery County School Board for the first time in 1991, Perkins served two terms as chair of the school board. Mary Biggs, also a former teacher who served in public office, was supportive. At that time, the Board of Supervisors appointed school board members.
To insure her appointment, Perkins recalls visiting the stockyard in Christiansburg to meet Joe Stuart, a county politician who wielded a great deal of power. “I knew most of the people on the board. I taught Larry Linkous.” Perkins got the appointment by a 4-3 vote.
In 1997, Perkins was elected to serve as a county supervisor, still following in the footsteps of her father. She was active as a community volunteer, as well.
“I would have loved to be on stage,” Perkins said.
She and her husband were active in local amateur theater for 15 years, but always off stage.
“We found out that executive producer means go-fer,” she joked.
When Perkins was available, she would sometimes substitute for principals in area public schools. She was full-time assistant principal at Christiansburg High School in 2004 and 2005 and was 65 years old when she began a three-year stint as principal of Christiansburg Middle School.
“We never paid too much attention to party affiliation,” Perkins said about her work with local politicos. “Even though we (supervisors) have to run on a party ticket, we have tried not to let that affect us too much.”
Still, she said she dreaded to see the animosity that clouded recent national elections “filtering down to local government. Since January, we have had a lot of 4-3 votes.”
“Yes, I catch grief,” she said of her exposure in public life. Sometimes she avoids some public gatherings. “Sometimes I know I’m not welcome, even though I taught many of their children.”
Her favorite gathering is the annual fish fry in Mt. Tabor, part of her own District A.
Perkins does her homework. She can talk about state government and national issues (NAFTA “didn’t work like it was supposed to”). In the financial downturn of the l980s “The rich held onto more of their money. The middle class was squeezed,” she explains.
She serves on the Airport Commission and can point out how the massive tax-free land holdings of Virginia Tech affect local tax rates.
Perkins recalls a 15-month period during which she and her husband lost all three of their remaining parents. For the past decade, she has had to focus on her husband’s care as his health diminished.
She uses a cane. As a child, she suffered a broken femur than did not heal properly. She spent time in a body cast and has two steel plates in her leg. “I was always a little one-sided,” she said, and that worsened “now that I’m an old lady in my seventies.” She had a hip replacement five years ago and predicts she’ll be needing a knee replacement.
“My daddy always said you have to give back,” she recalled. ”We all benefit from what goes on in a community, so we have to participate.”
The lessons she learned in family discussions at home still guide Perkins as she fulfills her role as an elected official. “If you know that something is wrong,” she said, “you have to work to change it.”
One of the things she talked to her father about was working in a field that was traditionally populated by men.
“You may have to give up your ladylike ways,” he advised, “and work twice as hard as the men do, just like other people who don’t have equality.”
Perkins admitted she was surprised and disappointed to see Donald Trump move ahead of Hillary Clinton in the recent presidential run.
Having a long tenure as a government teacher, she understood how the electoral college works. The situation where a candidate wins the popular vote but still loses in the electoral college “has happened before,” she said.
Perkins plans on at least one more race for the right to represent District A on the Montgomery Board of Supervisors.
She’s not ready to give up her way of giving back to the community.