By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Editor
Photos by Steve Rosamilia
In 2013 Mike Perkis was elected to “the most thankless, zero paying job in the history of politics.” Or at least that is how his son, Josh Perkis, saw his father’s role as Mayor of Sullivan’s Island. Judging by the laughter that accompanied Josh’s comment during his eulogy for his father, many islanders agree with that statement.
Perkis first took a seat on Sullivan’s Island Town Council in 2005, but his service to the island he loved was cut short on Oct. 7, 2014 when he lost his year long battle with pancreatic cancer.
Ask anyone who worked with Perkis in his role as mayor and they would tell you he was always willing and eager to hear from his constituents at any time of day, except between 7:30 and 8 p.m. On weekdays.
“Anyone who called Mike in the evening quickly learned the Jeopardy Rule,” Pat O’Neil, town councilmember, said. “I had to start watching it when possible, because if I called him shortly after 8, instead of getting a ‘Hello,’ I was as likely to be greeted with something like ‘Can you believe they all missed that Final Jeopardy question?’, so preparation was required.”
“Mike was very willing to give up so much of his free time to respond to people,” fellow councilmember Jerry Kaynard said. “He spent hours on the phone listening to people. He was a 24 hour mayor. Those of us close to him saw how much time he devoted to the job, he was selfless. We are very fortunate to have him as mayor.”
“Mike was a wonderful guy, upbeat, smart, determined, and fiercely devoted to his family, his friends, and his community,” O’Neil said. “For all the cynics who despair of finding good people for public service, Mike’s record is cause for hope. He was a straight-shooter, never afraid to take a position that was best for the Town, regardless of its consequences for him personally… I visited him in the hospital just days before he passed, and even then he was discussing Town matters with great interest.”
“My first recollection of Mike was the amazing job he did in organizing a citizen’s committee that crafted a ‘dogs-on-the-beach’ policy that has something for everyone,” Susan Middaugh, town councilmember, said. “A study by the College of Charleston, carried out by interviews of beach-goers, reported that this was a public policy that ‘works.’
“In his tenure as council member, he lent his considerable financial management skills to revamping the Town’s financial organization. This was a major reason that the Town came through the recent great recession in excellent shape,” Middaugh said.
As for all island residents, the beach was a huge part of Perkis’ life. But in his case, the love for the sand actually prompted his involvement in town politics.
“He had a keen interest in the dog ordinance,” Andy Benke, Town Administrator and close friend of Perkis, said. “Council was looking at changing the number of hours dogs could be on the beach with or without the leash, and that’s what got his interest. He spent a lot of time working on that and got a good look at how the government worked.” Benke first met Perkis on the beach.
“It was a chilly November morning in 2001. We were standing on the beach with our surfboards just after sunrise, both holding our preferred liquid caffeine beverage of choice and looking out over the ocean. He called over to me and said ‘Do you want to go for it?’ I said “Yeah, I’ve just got to get something from my car.’ He replied. ‘You might consider leaving that Duke sweatshirt and Pepsi product in your car!’”
As a former VP of Coca-Cola in Charlotte, NC, neither appealed to him greatly, but that didn’t stop Benke and him from becoming fast friends.
“Not a lot of people take up surfing in their late 50s, but he did, and became an accomplished surfer,” Benke said. “It’s a testament to his determination. He was also a black belt in karate, spoke Spanish and Chinese, all things he took up in retirement.”
When asked what Perkis’ strongest quality as a leader for the Island was, Benke replied, “I think that his ability to listen to all points of view, and to come together and find some middle ground was definitely a very strong leadership quality.
“When he took the office of the mayor the two next challenges (by that time the school as well underway) were the protection and management of the maritime forest and healing the wounds of a community that was divided.
The (construction of) Town Hall was really his way of helping heal those wounds,” Benke said. During his short tenure as mayor, he achieved a lot.
“He really did accomplish quite a lot. The school is right there at the top; the financial status of the town; the capital projects at the water and sewer; the noise ordinance in the commercial district, finding that balance between residential and commercial interests; the leash law; historic preservation. You can find his touch on all of those things, but he was most proud of the school,” Benke said.
“He was a person who was passionate about living and being part of Sullivan’s Island, and his effort and goal was always to make the right decision for the island and for its residents,” Benke said. “I don’t know what more you would really want for a leader for the community.”
The only real disappointment for Perkis in his foray into politics was the lack of civility he encountered. “Anything that was ever a personal attack he took very personally,” Jerry Kaynard said.
“He was very concerned and distressed over the lack of civility in some of our meetings. He saw it as a lack of respect for neighbors. “While there’s disagreement over issues those are just issues, neighbors are your friends.
He really wanted everyone to participate and then go out and have dinner together,” Kaynard said. “When people would get so upset that it would damage friendships it distressed him. It was his deep hope that dissension would be over and that everybody would be friends again, he expressed that so often, it was his highest hope for the island.”
While the island will certainly miss Mayor Perkis and mourn his passing, it is always advisable at times such as these to reflect on the positives. For Benke one of those was getting to take a final swim with his friend.
“We surfed this summer and we got him to come out, he was weak at first, I remember pushing him out through the waves. But he came back the next day and rode three or four waves with the biggest smile on his face,” Benke recalled.
For Perkis’ son, Josh, one positive is that his father was able to hang on long enough to appreciate his greatest political achievement. “I am forever grateful he lived long enough to see the opening of Sullivan’s Island Elementary School,” he said.