Scranton’s ‘Music Educator of the Year’ prepares to take final bow
By Bryce Martin | Pioneer Editor | email@example.com
It was John Denver who once said music brings people together.
After almost four decades of bringing together a community while at the helm of Scranton Public Schools’ music program, Mark Perkins is preparing to shelve his conducting baton.
The legacy that will be left when Perkins, 60, retires at the end of this school year became more palpable after he was named North Dakota’s music educator of the year at the North Dakota Music Awards last weekend.
“Mr. P definitely deserved the award,” said Brinley Norton, a senior at Scranton High School and member of the school band. Norton, 18, said all the students refer to Perkins as simply, Mr. P. “All of us kids love him and I know he has been a huge influence on my life.”
Norton’s sentiment is echoed around the community.
Perkins’ name was in the news over the past couple years as his daughter, Kat Perkins, took the music world by storm as a contestant on NBC’s “The Voice” and the release of her hit single.
It is in the hearts of those touched by Perkins’ stellar teaching, however, that his name is truly known.
“I’ve always thought that my ability to work with students has been pretty strong,” Perkins said. “The human relations part of it maybe more so than the music because you have to be able to work with kids to get them to do the things you want them to do.”
Perkins’ nuanced teaching and compassion for students mirrors the main character of the 1995 film, “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” in which high school music teacher and former composer Glenn Holland — played finely by actor Richard Dreyfuss — pours his life and spirit into forming one of the nation’s most impressive, long-lasting school music programs. Along the way, Holland both directly and indirectly touched the lives of his students.
That’s a reasonable comparison to Perkins — the merits of his leadership are measured by the talent and devotion offered by those he instructs.
“I became very involved here and interested in the kids as individuals as well as their educational part,” Perkins said. “Being a small school, we know everybody. I think that kind of grows naturally.”
“For my dad, at the end of his 36-year career, it was a huge, humbling honor.” -Kelly (Perkins) Robinson
Perkins said over the years the music program has adopted a familial feel — once a student joins the program, they instantly become “part of the group.” Perkins credits that mentality as one of the reasons the program has continued for so long.
Hundreds of students have come and gone over the past 36 years, leaving their individual marks on the face of Scranton’s music program. Though, it was Perkins who stayed with the program throughout. He has the distinction of being the school’s longest band director.
He recently added a new distinction to his repertoire, as he became the first person to be named music educator of the year. It’s not an honor that Perkins takes lightly.
Over 10,000 total votes poured in after a Bismarck-based radio duo started circulating on Facebook nominations for the state’s first music awards. Perkins saw the nomination form and wanted to nominate others for the variety of musical talent awards, he said. The top vote getters in a preliminary vote then became nominees for the awards. Perkins was one of only five teachers from around the state that were nominated.
“I was surprised to be nominated in something like that and I think winning was an even bigger surprise,” he said.
Kelly Robinson, Perkins’ eldest daughter, said her father was a little shocked that he actually won.
“For my dad, at the end of his 36-year career, it was a huge, humbling honor,” Robinson said.
The Perkins family, with the exception of Kat who was performing at a United Way benefit in Minneapolis, attended the Feb. 19 awards at the Belle Mehus Auditorium in Bismarck. It was a doubly special evening when Kat also won an award, named the year’s breakout musical artist.
“It kind of keeps it all in the family,” Perkins said as both won an award.
Throughout the years Perkins helped keep music alive within his family.
Both daughters were members of the Scranton High School band, under their father’s direction, and were both all-state performers. The Perkins family’s musical ties go back even further as he said his mother played in a dance band in the 1940s.
“It’s gone back a ways,” Perkins offered with a laugh.
Perkins maintained an interest in music since an early age, starting with the British Invasion by The Beatles in the 1960s. His brother, Randi Perkins, went off to become a performer and live in Nashville and his late brother, Scott Perkins, became a member of a band.
“I actually did a lot of performing when I was younger and that probably led to my own kids being exposed to that same type of thing,” Perkins said.
When he graduated college, Perkins’ ambition was to become part of Scranton’s music program and he was determined to maintain its already strong presence. In the process, it grew over the years.
“We had some really good people back when I was in school that kind of inspired me to do this job,” he said.
Music also became a large part of Scranton, according to Perkins, as the community staunchly supports Scranton’s music program. Music is found within people’s everyday lives and truly is something that helps to draw the community together, he said.
Regarding his students, their involvement with music does a lot to better their interpersonal skills. He has maintained an 80 to 85 percent ratio of the high school’s total enrollment that participate in the band, with a very low dropout average.
John Pretzer, superintendent of Scranton Public Schools, said Perkins did a job well done.
“Over the years, Mr. Perkins has developed and maintained a music program our community is proud of. His enthusiasm and love for sharing music has been an inspiration for his students,” Pretzer said, who also lauded Perkins for his “well deserved” achievement from the N.D. Music Awards. “We will truly miss Mr. Perkins at Scranton School, but wish him the very best in his retirement.”
As this year marks the last for Perkins, “everything we do becomes a milestone,” and nostalgia is overcoming the storied music teacher.
“I’m … thinking of all the things we’ve done and all the students that have gone through this program here,” he said.
Perkins said it was a family decision that he should retire. His children and grandchildren live back in Minnesota and that is where Mark, and his wife Gayle Perkins, decided they wanted to be at this point in their lives.
The job of Scranton’s band director will become available upon his retirement, but as to who could take Perkins’ place at the director’s podium is something only time will tell.