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Shirley Thomas Perkins, 85; USC Teacher Quit Career in Radio, TV to Write on Exploration of Space

August 06, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Shirley Thomas Perkins, who left a productive Hollywood career in radio and television to write about space exploration, has died. She was 85.

Perkins, a longtime teacher of writing at USC, died of cancer July 21 at her home in Hollywood, said her husband, William C. Perkins.

"She became very excited about the space program from the very earliest days and decided that is what she wanted to pursue, although she had never written a book in her life," Perkins told The Times on Thursday.

Her eight-volume "Men of Space" series was published between 1960 and 1968. The books profiled dozens of leaders on the ground and in the sky who were, as the copy on the first volume's book flap said, "making tomorrow's history today."

She told the tales of men around the world including Robert H. Goddard, a modern rocketry pioneer; Chuck Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier; and Theodore von Karman, a Hungarian American aerodynamicist who established the principles of supersonic flight.

The detailed but readable, magazine-style profiles included visiting her subjects at home and interviewing their childhood friends. A penchant for the exclamation mark revealed her enthusiasm for her work.

"At first I thought there might be a sameness to these men," she told The Times in 1961. "But I found they are all individuals -- except for one well-developed characteristic." To a man, they had a deep sense of responsibility to help better the world, she said.

Perkins campaigned for 20 years for Von Karman to be featured on a U.S. stamp because "it was the only honor that the man had never received," her husband said. "At the time, they only issued three stamps a year, so it was a long, laborious process."

To lobby for the stamp, she headed a committee that included astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Gordon Cooper. The postmaster general let her choose the place and date of the stamp's issue: Aug. 18, 1992, opening day of a World Space Congress in Washington.

Shirley Thomas was born in Glendale, the daughter of an electrical engineer and his wife. The family often moved as they sought a climate in Arizona or Southern California that would help Shirley's brother, who had severe asthma. She was often schooled by private tutors.

In 1949, she married Walter White Jr. but they were divorced three years later. The couple's company, Commodore Productions, produced radio shows, including "Hopalong Cassidy." She later did radio broadcasts for Voice of America. Professionally, she always used her maiden name of Thomas.

On television, Perkins conducted red-carpet interviews with celebrities for NBC from 1952 to 1956 and was a host of Rose Parade coverage for CBS, her husband said.

In England, she earned her bachelor's degree in 1960 and a doctorate in English in 1967 from the University of Sussex.

For the last 30 years, Perkins taught technical writing in the master of professional writing program at USC.

"She was the class of our program -- elegant and refined, with the vast experience of media and publishing that absolutely gave her the highest distinction as a professor," said James Ragan, director of the program.

"She had a wonderful mind," said Madelyn Cain, an academic advisor with the program who took Perkins' class in 1998. "She was classy, special, really unique -- part of an era we are not going to see again."

The professor was an elegant dresser, Cain said, who always came to class wearing high heels and a handkerchief that matched her well-cut suits.

In addition to her husband, whom she married in 1969, Perkins is survived by three stepsons.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, 1760 N. Gower St.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests that donations be sent to the master of professional writing program at USC, University Park Campus, 3470 Trousdale Parkway, Waite Phillips Hall, Room 404, Los Angeles, CA 90089.

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