Ruth Perkins remembers well something her father and mother said when she was growing up during the Great Depression. It was when a local name was brought up in conversation. “Daddy would always say that ‘they’re a little bit kin to us’…and Mama said ‘maybe a little,’” remarked Perkins.
Her father, particularly, was interested in family history. Ruth inherited that interest, or, more accurately – passion – for family genealogy. She even became a tried and true expert on the subject. There are plenty of witnesses around the Greensburg area and beyond who will concur, and that’s because they have watched her patiently, carefully and with the eye of a detective help hundreds of people become better acquainted with their families’ past. Some have come seeking her help from Canada, Germany and Australia, and she has handled calls and received visits from all over the United States.
You might call Ruth Perkins the “guru” of genealogy in Green County. You might even call her an icon around the community.
Ruth Perkins spent many hours inside the original Green County library on the second floor of the county's old courthouse.
Born in 1922, Perkins started working at the Green County Public Library long after she raised her own family. She was 47 and, ironically, moved into the position her daughter, Judy, vacated as Judy prepared to give birth to her second child in 1969. Perkins started out doing the general library duties as an assistant, but she immediately showed her interest and skills in tracing family history. Lanny Tucker, a long-time library patron and local author, remembers talking with Perkins while the two were checking out books in the library’s original location inside the old Greensburg Courthouse. “It turned out her husband and I were distant cousins. She was a great help to me later, proofreading the local history books I wrote,” said Tucker. “Call a name and she can tell you a bunch of history on that family and tell you where in the library it is.”
Having married Carl Perkins in 1937 at the age of 15, Ruth raised her son Kenneth, daughters Betty Carol, Patty Gail and Judy in church – and the cemetery. Why the cemetery? “We spent lots of Saturday and Sunday afternoons at cemeteries doing the tombstones,” said daughter Judy. That meant the researchers did “rubbings,” using chalk or flour to create imprints on paper from the tombstone etchings. Those times, led by Ruth, were informative, relationship bonding – and even humorous. “We would get flour on the car seats and we worried that we would get stopped by the police and they’d think it was cocaine,” said Judy, laughing.
Another son, Timothy Carl Perkins, may have missed some of the cemetery fun, born as the youngest in 1959. He is the fifth of the five children Ruth and Carl raised in their 75-year marriage. Sadly, he died of cancer in October.
There was an abundance of memorable and amusing moments for Perkins during her career while helping patrons learn about their familial background. She remembers fondly the little girl who called her “Mrs. Library,” and there were occasional misunderstandings regarding family research. “One person came in and asked how to make a ‘wheel,’” said Perkins, grinning. “I got her one of the Foxfire series books off the shelf to show her how to do it. Then she said it was not that … they wanted to know what you make when you die, which was a ‘will.’” Perkins recalls another customer who asked for a “geology” book. “I had the book out, showing her about rocks when I realized she meant ‘genealogy.’” explained Perkins, eyes sparkling.
Perkins stressed what she considers the most common mistake beginning family history searchers commit. “We have people who want the whole family history in a day or two,” said Perkins. “It takes a lot of time and patience, and it is fun … if you like crossword puzzles. You get addicted, and sometimes spouses don’t like each other doing it.” One word of advice from the Ruth Perkins book of wisdom is most urgent: “You need to talk to your old people – while they’re still living,” she said, “and talk to the oldest people in your family to begin with.”
But even with all of the benefits of exploring one’s genealogy, Perkins has a distinct word of caution for those who get involved.
“Everybody finds skeletons. Some people don’t want to admit it. Some stop right there and don’t want to know any more,” she said.
Laura Johnson, the person who is the successor to Perkins after her recent retirement, noted that Perkins always dismisses the bad news about finding “skeletons” by saying: “That’s just the way it was … you just can’t change it.” Johnson remarked that she is “honored to replace Ruth Perkins,” but also noted that she has “big shoes to fill and has already learned from Ruth.”
Carolyn Scott, who formerly was county clerk, became acquainted with Perkins when Perkins visited the Green County Courthouse to look up old genealogical records. Scott is in awe of Perkins in regard to both her genealogical skills and her gracious manner. She knew Perkins was a good source of information.
“I always sent people to Ruth to answer questions about genealogy,” said Scott. “She keeps the information in her head, and she’s forgotten more than most of us around here can remember. She will take you from the basics. She is a kind, generous person, and always has time to talk.”
Ray Perkins (no relation to Ruth) called her an “encyclopedia of Green County history.” Ray, a retired archaeologist, told of the help Ruth gave him in researching his family records: “She didn’t quit until she had a whole volume of material I was looking for,” he said. “She’s all for getting at the primary source (of information) and you can take for gold whatever she tells you.”
Besides her very productive years spent at the library, Perkins has taught Sunday school classes for over fifty years. She is proud of what her well-raised children have done with their lives, also. “Kenny went into the Army and Timothy worked locally at a factory. Betty Carol is a retired registered nurse,” drawled Perkins. “Patty is a retired teacher and Judy is a secretary for the family business.” Not bad for a person who, as a young girl in the Green County area, worked hard to help her parents eke out a living by milking cows, chopping weeds from corn and tobacco, watering the mules and even “dragging” the plowed fields to smooth them down for cultivation. It turned out to be good training for the hard work and time it takes to cultivate a workable narrative of family from an odd assortment of information pieces drawn from the records from long past.
Shelley Pruitt, current director at the Green County Public Library, said of Ruth Perkins: “The library is like her home. She has been the source of information for so many people from all over the United States as our genealogist. She has been a mentor to the staff, a leader to the community and a true friend to all.”
And though officially Ruth Perkins “retired” at the end of 2010, and she was honored by her admirers with a wonderful reception at the library, Ruth Perkins will continue to be what “family” is all about for the folks around Green County – and beyond.
Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, a teacher, public speaker and an author of four books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and three in the “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes” series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. This story is from “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3,” due to be released in December 2012. His most recent book, Kentucky’s “Everyday Heroes for Kids” is now available at local bookstores. Or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or “friend” him on Facebook.