Norval E. Perkins; D.C. Elections Chief, Music Critic

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 20, 2006

Norval E. Perkins, a jazz aficionado whose earlier career in the D.C. government sounded several chaotic notes when he was chief officer of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, died July 21 of cancer at his home in Washington. He was 84.

Mr. Perkins had a career as a geodetic researcher with the U.S. Army Map Service and was a jazz columnist before overseeing the District's elections process from 1970 to 1976. His other duties included voter registration, campaign finance and questions of ethics. He helped develop the first mail-in registration for the District.

During his tenure, however, it seemed the city's elections were constantly mired in problems. One year, it took 12 days to count ballots; another year, ballots toppled off trucks; in other years, computers went missing. In 1976, elections board members decided to reorganize and eliminate Mr. Perkins's job rather than fire him. He appealed to the U.S. Civil Service Commission and was reinstated with back pay.

"It was a difficult time," said his daughter, Donna Perkins Potts, recalling her father's years in city government, noting that he wasn't a "typical bureaucrat."

"He was very excited and impressed with what the District was able to get done" at the time he accepted the elections position, she said. Things grew more complicated later as he found himself dealing with elections mishaps and inaugurating new agencies.

From 1977 to 1980, Mr. Perkins was executive director of the Citizens Gambling Study Commission, which investigated the feasibility of legalized gambling in the District. He helped to establish the D.C. Lottery operation and served as its chief from 1981 to 1984.

Mr. Perkins was born in Chicago and grew up in Philadelphia with an early love of music. As a young boy, he collected jazz and classical music albums. He would sometimes sneak out of the house to frequent clubs with his stepsister, Carmen McRae, who became a well-known jazz singer.

Mr. Perkins moved to Washington in 1941 and attended Howard University until he was drafted into the Army in 1943.

After returning from the military, he married and in 1947 graduated from American University. He spent a year at the Sorbonne in Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1950 to 1951.

Back in Washington, he began working with the Army Map Service. For 15 years, he was responsible for translating documents from French that were used in defense intelligence. He then spent the next 14 years with the D.C. government.

Mr. Perkins, well-known in local jazz circles, was a music critic with the Washington Afro-American newspaper in the 1960s. His column, "One More Chorus," reviewed jazz and classical music in Washington.

He was a member of the board of directors and a past president of the Left Bank Jazz Society, a jazz appreciation group. He helped produce a successful jazz festival on the grounds of the Washington Monument and was a member of the music panel of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

Mr. Perkins was co-founder of the Listening Group, a local club that meets monthly to listen to recordings and live performances of jazz artists.

His other interests included anthropology, comparative religions and travel. He and his wife took jazz cruises to the Caribbean and traveled to Europe, Africa and South America. They vacationed for more than 50 years on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

His wife of 58 years, Dottie Perkins, died in 2002.

In addition to his daughter, of Washington, survivors include two sisters; a brother; a granddaughter; and a great-granddaughter.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company