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Column: I will always remember Donnie Perkins

For the Valley News
Published: 5/30/2020 10:10:12 PM
Modified: 5/30/2020 10:10:10 PM

I arrived in the Upper Valley in the frigid winter of 1985. There to start my first job out of college, as sports director at WTSL Radio, I knew not a soul.

I found a one-room apartment in Hanover, two floors above the former 5 Olde Nugget Alley. I love dark, cozy bars, so when I ventured into the subterranean watering hole the locals called “5 Olde,” I was immediately enamored of the vibe — and the extensive beer can collection behind the bar. No sooner had I pulled up a stool when a smiling bartender, curly hair tumbling out from under his baseball cap, jumped to my service. “What’ll ya have?”

Donnie Perkins (“Perky” to his legion of friends) introduced himself. I told him I was the new radio sports guy in town and he started to pepper me with trivia. Could I name the players in the photo behind the bar? I could. I thought I was on my way.

Then he asked if I could identify the umpire. It was at that moment I fully realized the daunting task ahead.

Born and raised in New Jersey, I was a die-hard Yankees fan. I knew if that information got out, I might not last the month in Red Sox nation. So when Donnie asked who I rooted for, I hedged and said I’d left all my allegiances back at home and would be neutral from now on.

“You’re safe with me,” he blurted. “I hate the Sox. I’ve been a Yankees fan all my life.”

Donnie was older and smarter than me, and yet never treated me as anything but a friend. He was sincerely curious and a great listener. He had a depth and breadth of sports knowledge — especially baseball — that was intimidating. After all, I was the new sports guy in town and the first person I meet has forgotten more about baseball than I will ever know.

Didn’t matter. I was thrilled to make his acquaintance. During that first encounter I quickly realized he knew everyone who came in, by name or nickname, not just to say “hi” but to ask about their lives, wives, kids, jobs, softball teams, etc. This was clearly someone I was already lucky to know. Ready to leave, I put a $20 bill on the bar, which he refused, and the subject changed to music.

“If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me? For I must be traveling on now, ’cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see.”

— Lynyrd Skynyrd

Donnie, who died May 16 at just 64, loved Lynryd Skynyrd and Creedence Clearwater Revival as much as I loved the Grateful Dead and Steely Dan. He told me he played guitar and was hoping to put a band together. As fate would have it, I play drums.

This would lead to many more discussions until, sometime later that year, I made the six-hour drive back to Jersey to gather my drum kit, and then six more hours back to get to WTSL by 4:45 the next morning. We had no idea what a little jamming might lead to, but Donnie was on a mission. In very short order, he had summoned Mike Colburn, a gifted lead guitar player and singer, and a mighty little bass player named Steve, to round out the band. (A shout out here to Bart, another gifted musician, who became a friend and future member of the band.)

But where to play? Not at my place, which was barely big enough for a bed and a toaster. Not to worry; Donnie soon coaxed his buddy Boomer to let us practice in his cellar on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River. Thus, was born the Boomer Sellers Band.

I have always been honored that Donnie invited me to be the founding drummer of what would become a well-loved outfit in the Upper Valley. The gigs at Joe’s in Norwich are legend. Keep in mind, all of this is the upshot of my first beer with Donnie, just days after I’d landed in the Upper Valley.

It gets better.

Donnie was as local as local gets. His close friends know the details far better than I do, but I came to learn that he had grown up with some adversity, though you’d never have known it. Well-read and fiercely intelligent, he had a real-world wisdom and wit that can only be earned, not given. Yet a kinder, more positive soul could not be found. Generous to a fault, Donnie was always there for everyone. Need a ride? Wanna chat? Who’s up for some softball? Play a few tunes?

He came at you with boundless energy and a sincere smile. He shook your hand the way I imagine Teddy Roosevelt might have shaken it. He was so loyal. He was rarely seen without his beloved dog Slider (named after Ron Guidry’s best pitch), and he had a way of distilling things down to their essence. Few people I’ve met could say “yes” with such gusto and “no” without making you feel bad.

Several days later, I was back at 5 Olde when in walked his friend Joe Yukica Jr. Donnie could barely contain his excitement. He was looking for players for his softball league and Joe was trying to put a team together. Donnie introduced me and, almost as an afterthought, informed me that Joe’s dad was the head coach of the Dartmouth College football team.

“Good guy to know if you’re gonna be the sports director,” he said.

That introduction led to the formation of a softball team that included Jim Mitchell, Dave Higley, Steve Bird and Tim Winslow — now a highly respected basketball coach himself — among others. They all remain good friends to this day.

But Donnie was about much more than just good times. He came to my rescue early in my career, and proved he had connections in every corner of the Upper Valley.

I was as green as they come when I showed up at WTSL. I was calling a high school basketball game when Rob Woodward, a local Red Sox pitching prospect, showed up at the gym. When I asked for an interview, he declined. Not realizing he was very shy, I went on the air and made a snarky remark about Rob being a little too big for his britches. The blowback was swift and harsh, and it almost cost me my job. But Donnie stepped in. I believe he spoke to Rob or his family, as did my former WTSL colleague Roger Carroll.

I apologized on air and Rob later agreed to an interview. Donnie was there for me in good times and bad, and I owe all of these friendships, as well as three of the best years of my life, to Donnie Perkins.

After moving to Hanover back in ’85, my friends from home would sometimes ask me about how I was doing. I loved my job (thank you, Darrell Clark), but I couldn’t wait to tell them about where I lived. I often described it like this:

“Think of the show Cheers. Well, I live over an underground bar just like Cheers. It’s one of those places where literally everyone knows everyone’s name. And the bartender is just like Sam Malone. He was a great baseball player in his day, he can spin a serious yarn and he is the first to greet you when you walk in. He knows what you’re drinking and which girl you have a crush on. He is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and he’s introduced to me everyone. Because of him, I am in a great band, part of a great softball league and I know the backstory of every high school team and coach in the area. I am also part of a circle of friends that has welcomed me and made me feel at home, despite the fact that I knew nobody when I came to town. All thanks to this guy Perkins — the Sam Malone of the Upper Valley — who I met the first time I descended the long staircase into 5 Olde Nugget Alley, which also happens to be my new address!”

When I heard the news of Donnie’s passing, I was crushed and disbelieving, even though I knew he had been struggling with assorted health issues. The last time I saw him was about three years ago at the new 5 Olde in South Royalton (Spike was there, too!). We kept in touch on Facebook and via text and I sent him a Christmas card every year. Now, sadly, Donnie will have to live inside all of my most treasured memories of my magical time in the Upper Valley.

I know most of those reading this knew Donnie far longer and better than I did. But the impression he left on me during my years in New Hampshire is indelible, as it is with everyone he touched. The outpouring of sadness and smiles and memories since his passing has brought me to tears more than once. He will be dearly missed by all who crossed his path, be it for a drink, a few years or a lifetime.

I miss you already, Donnie. When the Yankees finally get back on the diamond, I will raise my beer and toast baseball, the Bronx Bombers and Don Perkins. You made life better for all of us who were lucky enough to call you a friend. I won’t say goodbye. I’ll just say fare thee well ... until we meet again.

After leaving WTSL, Todd Goodman worked for the National Hockey League, Westwood One Radio and NBC News. Now a private tutor, he lives in Chatham, N.J., and plays the drums almost every day.

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