A teacher told her she should go to college. And her whole life changed.

Elma Perkins wasn’t supposed to live.

She was a premie, born 2 months early, on June 20, 1925. They didn’t have incubators in those days, so after her birth in an Erie, Pennsylvania, hospital, the medical staff “set me aside and focused on my mother,” Elma said.

But even then, she was determined.

Elma celebrated her 90th birthday this summer, and friends marked it with cake, pink flowers and fanfare. For Elma, age is just a number, and not something she wants to spend much time focusing on.

“It’s not until I look in the mirror that I realize things aren’t the same.” Inside, she still feels young, she said.

Elma’s father was a dairy farmer. Elma remembers going up into the fields some evenings to call him for supper, and getting to ride home on the back of a horse. Her dad lost the farm when the Great Depression hit, and he died of pneumonia one cold January day when Elma was 9.

Her mother kept the family afloat by gardening, and sold potatoes, peas and string beans at a roadside stand.

“I learned at a very early age how to choose a good melon and make change,” Elma said.

She attended grade school in a one-room schoolhouse.

High school was a slightly larger venue; there were 21 kids in her graduating class. It was there that she learned to love basketball: She played guard for five years, and still has the red and black letter “F” that she earned at Fairview High School.

It was music, however, that turned Elma’s life around.

She sang, played trumpet and piano, and her music teacher saw a spark in her. His name was Mr. Lawrence, and he told Elma that he thought she should go to college. Then he helped her get in.

Of her peers, she was “about the first one in the town” to go to college.

In hindsight, Elma said, that was a particularly remarkable turning point given who Mr. Lawrence was: He was an African-American man, and this was 1940s America.

“No one thought about the fact that he was black,” she said. “He was just Mr. Lawrence.”
Mansfield State Teachers College changed everything for Elma.

She put herself through school, first by manufacturing war parts in a local factory and then by working as the head waitress in her college dining room.

It was there that she met Bill Perkins, a World War II veteran who’d served four years in combat zones across Europe and was back to receive his degree, thanks to the GI Bill. He was assigned as the head waiter in the same dining room.

The two married a year before Elma graduated.

Bill’s work as a Red Cross social worker took the family all over the world. He counseled service men and women in the midwest, Guam, Hawaii, Germany and Japan. Elma moved more than two dozen times. The Perkins’ three children each were born in different spots.
For Elma, this way of life was meaningful and exciting.

“My mother used to say that when I was 2 years old and we’d pull up to the house in the car after being somewhere, I’d want to know where we were going next,” she said. “I’ve always loved to be on the go.”

Part of the appeal was that Elma met new friends all over the world. She was active in church every place she lived. And when her beloved husband of 50 years died suddenly, of an aneurysm, in 1998, Elma says it was those connections that helped her through it.

“Church was like a haven for me,” she said. And her friends, even those far away, offered great comfort. “I just got in my car and went to see people.”

She’s still determined to keep moving.

In October of this year she took a trip to Ohio, for a reunion with two classmates from that high school where she’d been inspired by Mr. Lawrence. Elma and her friends laughed and reminisced about days on the basketball court. They studied old pictures. They went through their yearbooks, the ones where they’d prophesied about how their lives might turn out.

“I had written that I wanted to travel,” Elma said. “We talked about how our prophesies came true.”