John W. Perkins (1935-2008)
Formerly Director of Extra-Mural Studies and Staff Tutor in Geology, Cardiff University
With the death of John Perkins, Cardiff has lost one who embodied the spirit of the University Extra-Mural Departments of much of the second half of the 20th century.
John was a Devonian, as could be detected from his voice even after nearly 40 years in South Wales. Despite strong south-western roots he chose Manchester as a university and studied Geography there from 1953 to 1956. After that, he returned to Devon and by the later 1960s was working in Adult Education as a Tutor-Organiser for the Workers’ Educational Association. Like a number of WEA Tutors of the period, a move into university extra-mural work was a natural transition and he came to Cardiff early in 1971 to take up the new post of Staff Tutor in Geology.
He quickly expanded the Geology programme and began the series of study tours for which he will be well known to many. These continued, even after he became Director of Extra-Mural Studies on the retirement of John Selwyn Davies in 1984, and took in all sorts of geological landscapes from Britain to the Pacific and from Iceland to the Grand Canyon. His period as Head of Department was not an easy one for Adult Education or for the University, but he ensured that the Department successfully weathered the storms and he began the process of aligning extra-mural courses more closely with those of the undergraduate programme.
He took early retirement in 1994 on the onset of Parkinson’s Disease. For many years, in retirement, he was able to control this debilitating disease, though latterly he was forced to resort to a wheelchair. He tried hard not to let this affect his independence or his mobility. Only a couple of months ago, I encountered him on a shopping expedition, assisted by one of his neighbours and cheerfully recounting his wheelchair adventures around various Cardiff venues.
John was a great believer in taking university knowledge into the community. Inevitably he did this through his courses, but he also was the author of a number of books which carried his subject to a much wider audience. His three volumes (on Devon and Dorset) in the ‘Geology Explained’ series are still quoted as standard handbooks for the area concerned. A number of books and booklets written by him were published by the University Department of Extra-Mural Studies. These were intended to provide a geological background for the layman on areas as diverse as the South Wales Coalfield and Arizona. He also published on the Bath Stone industry and on the stones of Cardiff – not in this case the underlying geology of the region but the often exotic stones used in the buildings of the Victorian and later city. All exemplified their author’s enthusiasm for geology and his ability to convey both that enthusiasm and his considerable knowledge to a broad audience.
In the days before assessment of students transformed adult teaching, contacts between tutors and adult students were more easy-going and not necessarily restricted to a formal timetable. Certainly John regarded his students as his friends and many shared his love both of geology and of walking. One result was an informal walking society, termed by its members (most of whom were attending, or had attended, John’s classes) the ‘Hummocky Drifters’ after a particular geological phenomenon often encountered in the Cardiff region. Its activities lasted long after John left the Department and eased both his retirement and, perhaps, the gap left by the early death of his second wife, Ruth.
John once likened life to a bus journey with different people getting on and off at different points – a modernisation of Bede’s analogy of the sparrow flying through the lighted hall. Many whose lives were illumined by him will be saddened to see the departure of this very particular traveller.
Reader in Archaeology, Cardiff University