Dave Perrins wears his years in Priest River like a pair of suspenders on his considerable chest.
Tough and quick with a comeback, he’s lived his life the straightest way he knows how. Working at the sawmill to support his family. Teaching his kids to hit the ball.
When Spokane’s Pushie Grandmas tried to honor him as Father of the Year for the Inland Northwest chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, he couldn’t make it. Had to help run the Lions Club golf tournament in Priest River.
He couldn’t even get out of town for a family visit in Portland this week, because more than 70 Lions Clubs from Idaho, Washington and British Columbia scheduled a dinner in honor of Perrins and his wife, Jan.
He was also just named Lion of the Year.
For what? Perrins asked. This? This is his life. Nothing special.
When the town’s ball fields need sod, you help install it. You coach kids from T-ball to Babe Ruth. You help build the running track, the town park, the barbecue pit. From the Spartan Booster Club to the Priest River Youth Athletic Association, from DARE to the Huckleberry Festival, you’re there for your kids and grandkids. The Perrins always have been.
“We had the time and we took the time,” Perrins said.
“We saw too many others expect organizations to baby-sit their kids. We got involved,” said Jan Perrins.
Born in east Los Angeles, the Perrins came north 22 years ago for the serenity.
Above the riffles on Priest River, they found it in a home they thought was forever.
In their first year, they took over Toys for Tots, then ran it for more than a decade. They raised their children - Mitze, Liz, David and Andrew - while volunteering for bake sales, raffles, benefits, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, basketball.
“Dave and Jan have done service for this community since the day they arrived,” said Dr. Jerry Jones, a Priest River dentist. “They’re a team.”
Twelve years ago, the numbness and pain in Dave Perrins’ legs and back was diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. With it came what daughter Liz calls “a hitch in his get-along” - fatigue, depression, short-term memory loss and a body that doesn’t always respond to the mind’s commands.
The disease affects the nerves “like an extension cord with the insulation off,” Perrins said.
“The juice goes everywhere but the light isn’t quite lit.”
In the midst of his struggle, Liz, then 25, developed a rare bone cancer that led to the amputation of her left arm, shoulder and several ribs in 1990. Doctors also found two holes in son Andrew’s leg stemming from a birth defect.
As both were recovering, Perrins, who ran heavy equipment his whole life, was forced to take medical retirement. With just a small pension, the family waited an excruciating six months to qualify for Social Security disability payments.
“It drained everything we had. But the bank stayed with us,” said Perrins. When they finally qualified, he sat down at the kitchen table and wept.
The town rallied around the family with fund-raisers for Liz, who now lives in Portland. Still, many neighbors didn’t even realize Perrins had MS until he rode in this year’s Lilac Parade in Spokane as Father of the Year. To keep his disease in remission, he takes massive doses of steroids intravenously and gives himself shots of an experimental drug, beta seron.
Jan Perrins works at the local video store to pay for his prescriptions. Married 30 years last January, they are still so active that last month Jan Perrins won the Lions’ President’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He helps her volunteer for the Leos (young Lions) Club and both are helping restore the historic Hotel Charboneau in Priest River.
Winning “Father of the Year” delighted his family, but left Perrins with mixed feelings. The disease that is bringing him all this attention, he knows, is the one changing his life.
Come fall, the Perrins will sell the house above the riffles and move to the milder winters of Oregon.
Jones says the void will be so huge, he wonders how the Lions Club will even survive.
“They’re our rock,” Jones says. “And our rock is moving.”
The Perrins say community service in Priest River will go on. Daughter Mitze has already joined the Lions. All the kids are raising money for MS.
I’m just me. I’m nothing special,” Perrins says.
“To me,” says daughter Liz. “He’s what every father should be.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo