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A Gulf Coast Journalist: Jack Perkins

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  • | 4:00 a.m. July 11, 2012
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Jack Perkins should really be interviewing himself.

He’d ask better questions in fewer words and in a voice that’s at once commanding and gentle — his most defining characteristic.

Following the interview, he’d offer wholesome commentary in a slow, graceful cadence, a sparse straightforward delivery patterned after his mentor, the late David Brinkley.

He’d get all his inside jokes and references.

He’d know that Moosewood is the name he and his wife, Mary Jo, gave their island homestead off the coast of Maine.

He’d know the Emmy Awards he earned during his 25 years as a reporter with NBC are “up on a shelf somewhere that nobody sees,” and that the last Suncoast Emmy he received for “A Gulf Coast Journal” is sitting in the back of his car and has still not been engraved.

He’d already know his stance on television awards: They’re nice, but they’re not worth fussing over.

His dog, an Australian shepherd aptly named Boomerang, wouldn’t be going berserk over the arrival of a stranger in his Casey Key home, and Perkins, fresh off a trip to Georgia, would be free to glance over the final revisions of his book, a spiritual memoir slated for publication early next year by Zondervan, the Christian book division of HarperCollins.

“There will be an audio book,” Perkins says. “One of the conditions was that I narrate it.”

Of course.

Now that “A Gulf Coast Journal” is in re-runs, Perkins will need an outlet for his voice.

The show, which earned nine Suncoast Emmy Awards and the largest programming grant in WEDU’s 45-year history, has not been renewed for a ninth season.

Sponsored by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the monthly news magazine, which premiered in 2004 on local PBS station WEDU, lost its funding in the fall.

Although the station insists it will find alternate finances, Perkins is doubtful it’ll come through.

“I’m greatly disappointed,” he says. “Of all the opportunities I had in TV, ‘A Gulf Coast Journal’ was one of my favorites. In a lot of ways, it was the best thing I ever did. It was positive and heartening. It focused on those aspects of life that are good, good, good.”

For eight seasons, the series highlighted the eccentric, artful characters that make Sarasota and Manatee County Florida’s cultural mecca. From Balinese dancers to beach yogis, Perkins rubbed elbows with them all, broadcasting their stories each month into 700,000 living rooms.

As the show’s host, Perkins was forced to embed himself in the community. With each 30-minute episode his affection for the area grew, as did the area’s affection for him.

Grandfatherly and outdoorsy in his trademark Tilley hat, Perkins’ towering presence brought comfort and experience to the program.

No matter the subject, he began each episode with the same two words: “Dear journal,” an introduction that’s taken on a whole new meaning now that Perkins is publishing a memoir.

Dressed in track pants and a T-shirt, the 78-year-old journalist is the portrait of a man at rest.

At the suggestion of his editor, he’s been sorting through boxes of old keepsakes for the photo section of his book.

In the process of unearthing photos, he came across several black-and-white images of his early days as a reporter for NBC, snapshots of himself in Buddy Holly glasses interviewing Hollywood starlets.

He also found scripts from his most formative years with Brinkley, most notably the script from NBC’s Nov. 22, 1963, broadcast — the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

“What Brinkley taught me was a master class in how TV news should be written,” Perkins says. “Say less, mean more. If a story is dramatic, you don’t have to tell it dramatically. Be simple. Direct. None of this, ‘The nation suffered a great tragedy’ nonsense.”

The process of rifling through old stuff has conjured up feelings of nostalgia, even if Perkins won’t admit it.
“Missing is a negative emotion,” he says. “It’s the past tense, and life happens in the present tense.”

The 13 years he spent in a small cabin on a remote island in Maine is at the heart of his memoir, the title of which says it all: “Finding Moosewood, Finding God: What Happened When a TV Newsman Abandoned His Career for Life on an Island.”

Already a published author of several books of poetry and photography (“poetography,” as he calls them), Perkins says he’s finally at a place in his life in which he can publish an honest memoir.

“I’ve written it many times, and each time it was completely different,” Perkins says of the book. “It was never right, until now. I hadn’t fulfilled myself yet.”

A veteran television journalist and host, Perkins began his career at NBC, under the tutelage of Brinkley. During his time with the network, he served as a correspondent, commentator and anchorman.

In the 1990s, he resurfaced on cable television as the host of several shows on the A&E channel, including the network’s flagship series, “Biography.”

“This was before A&E morphed into a home for reality TV,” Perkins points out. “Before it became the channel for ‘Dog The Bounty Hunter’ and Gene Simmons’ family saga.”

In 1999, when Perkins retired to Casey Key, he was happy to settle in and slow down.

Five years later, when he took a job hosting a regional PBS program devoted to showcasing Sarasota’s arts-and-cultural scene, he resurfaced again, although this time in a more low-profile way.

“It is a producer’s dream to work with someone of Jack’s stature,” says producer Jen Noble. “I’ve had other people ask me to write for them like I write for Jack and I can’t. It’s like a tailored suit. Nobody says my words like Jack says them.”

She pauses for a second to consider how exactly he says them.

“The only way I can describe it is ‘poetic,’” Noble says. “A rhythm of spoken words.”