Mental health pioneer leaves behind legacy of better lives


Clarence Perkins was a pioneer in the field of mental health in Arkansas who devoted his career to improving the standard of care for those suffering from mental illness.

Perkins, who died May 31 in Pine Bluff at the age of 80, was preceded in death by his wife of of 55 years, Frances Perkins, and is survived by two children, four grandchildren and three sisters.

“Daddy was a great man and a great father who cared deeply about helping other people,” said daughter Meredith Whitmore. “He was extremely passionate about what he did. I can remember growing up that he would be called out in the middle of the night to help someone. Several Christmases he would get a call and he would leave and we didn’t know when he was coming back. The holidays were always when people would become depressed and so he would get a call from the sheriff or a policeman and he was always glad to help.”

Whitmore said that her father was tireless in his advocacy on behalf of his patients and their families.

“He was all about helping people and making sure that they got the right treatment and went to the right facility,” Whitmore said. “He helped a lot of people in Pine Bluff. He had a very strong work ethic and that bled over into his children. I have a very strong work ethic because of him and he expected others to have one as well. He was hard on his employees because he wanted to make sure that the people who were depending upon him were cared for.”

Whitmore said that despite her father’s commitment to his career, he was also a full-time father who was active in the lives of his children.

“He was always at our dance recitals and football games,” Whitmore said. “Obviously there were times he couldn’t be there, but he took us on great trips and gave us experiences.”

Whitmore said that her father was also a man of strong faith.

“He was a very strong Christian,” Whitmore said. “Our whole family was very involved in First Baptist Church in Pine Bluff. We were there every Sunday and every Wednesday. He always donated financially to the church. He was head of the church’s television ministry for 26 years. He always made sure that we were on the air and he loved doing it. When my mother died five years ago, donations were made to the television ministry at First Baptist.”

Wayne Perkins expressed his profound pride in his father’s professional accomplishments and his affection for a man who he also considered a friend.

“Removing the stigma from those with mental illness was probably what drove him the most,” Wayne Perkins said. “He worked to remove the curtain, so to speak, and get mental health into the mainstream. He said that mental illness should not be thought of any differently than heart disease, diabetes or any other physical illness — that it is an illness like any other and can be treated.

“Mental health parity was something he was extremely interested in,” Wayne Perkins said. “He spoke out about the fact that mainstream insurance limited mental health coverage compared to coverage for other illnesses.”

Wayne Perkins said that his father worked for years to help fashion legislation to improve the quality of and access to mental health treatment. This legislation was implemented at both the state and the national level.

“He worked very closely with [the late Massachusetts Sen.] Ted Kennedy because the senator was also a big proponent of mental health care,” Wayne Perkins said. “My father helped write what became the National Mental Health System Act of 1980 and went to Washington, D.C., to witness the signing of the act into law by President Jimmy Carter. He was very, very involved on a state level as well and worked with governors all the way back to [Bill] Clinton’s first term.”

Wayne Perkins said that he and his father were close.

“I played football and baseball growing up and I would really have to sit down and think to come up with a game of mine that he missed,” Wayne Perkins said of his father. “He was always there. I can remember after working a long, hard day we would play catch with him still in his dress pants and dress shirt. He really was my best friend.”

Wayne Perkins said that his father acted as a sort of shepherd for him and his sister and all of their friends.

“He cared for our friends as much as he did for us,” Wayne Perkins said. “He would take Meredith and her friends and drive to the Pine Bluff Zebras football games when I was on the team.”

Wayne Perkins said that his father’s love of sports led to years of officiating at high school and college sporting events.

“One of the things that I’m really proud of is his accomplishments in football and basketball,” Wayne Perkins said. “He began officiating in college and went on to work basketball tournaments for the Southwest Conference. In the early 1970s he officiated at a high school basketball tournament at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock between Fort Smith Northside and Conway for the state overall championship. It was attended by 10,000 people, which at the time was the largest crowd to ever attend a basketball game in state history.”

Patrick Haynie was a colleague and a friend of Clarence Perkins for nearly five decades.

“I met Clarence in 1968 when I was administrator of the Arkansas State Hospital and he had just become the administrator of the mental health center in Pine Bluff,” Haynie said. “He took the lead in establishing 15 nonprofit mental health centers across the state. I knew him for almost 50 years and he was one of the finest men I have ever met, much less worked with. I could sit back and talk about Clarence all day. He was more of a mentor to me, even though I was there longer. He just always had the right answers.”

Haynie said that he and Perkins were the first two Arkansans trained and certified in mental health administration.

“Clarence was really responsible for reducing the numbers of the mentally ill who were hospitalized in Arkansas,” Haynie said. “There were 3,000 people in the Benton State Hospital and another 2,000 at the Little Rock State Hospital. Clarence worked vigorously to downsize state hospitalizations of the mentally ill. He was the leader in seeing a downsizing from 5,000 down to no more than 100 patients.”

“He was a remarkable man,” Haynie said. “I learned a lot from the guy and I’m going to miss him.”

Kathy Harris, President and CEO of Southeast Arkansas Behavioral Healthcare System, said that Perkins served as her mentor during the 33 years that she served as his assistant.

“He was a man of untiring devotion to the cause of community mental health and he grew mental health in this community and the state of Arkansas,” Harris said. “He grew me professionally and groomed me into this position. The center was such an integral part of who he was and his existence that you never saw much separation between the two.”

Harris said that Perkins encouraged the professional growth of his staff.

“Many of us were able to grab onto that passion and commitment that he had and that drive and passion are now part of our lives too,” Harris said. “It was my privilege and honor to work for him those years.”

Perkins served as administrator of Southeast Arkansas Behavioral Healthcare System [previously Southeast Arkansas Mental Health Center] from 1968 until his retirement in 2011.