SMITH COLUMN: The story of Don Perno

Published 10:30 am Thursday, February 24, 2022

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College towns have always been attractive to outsiders which brought about diverse communities dating back to the early days of the 20th century. That is why, in the South, that Catholic churches appeared wherever there was a university environment.

Professors who came from other parts of the country were often Catholic which influenced the existence of Catholic churches. This circumstance also impacted the recruiting of outstanding athletes to Southern campuses.  Coaches were quick to learn that a prospect’s mother could not be persuaded to let her son embark to Athens or Auburn or Tuscaloosa or Oxford if he could not attend Mass on the weekend.

That is why so many Notre Dame graduates flourished at Southern schools. Harry Mehre at Georgia, Frank Thomas at Alabama, Jack Meagher at Auburn and Rex Enright at South Carolina.

You think that Frank Sinkwich, Charley Trippi, John Rauch, Joe Tereshinski and other recruits from Pennsylvania and Ohio would have matriculated in Athens if there were no Catholic churches?

Zippy Morocco, one of Georgia’s most successful two sport stars came to Athens, played for the Bulldogs and, except for military duty, never left.   When Zippy took up residence in Athens following military duty and pro football, that brought about the migration from Youngstown, Ohio of his nephew Don Perno. Morocco’s sister Rose had already settled in the Classic City and her son arrived to open an Arby’s franchise in 1969.

Don was blessed with that old country, old school enterprise and work ethic that led to 2362 West Broad Street becoming a popular gathering place where good food was accompanied by good conversation with doting patronage coming about from local folk and students who preferred roast beef over hamburger and chicken. 

There was more. Arby’s became a hangout for Don Perno’s many friends.  He made friends easily with his evergreen smile, caustic commentary, practical jokes and generous personality. He arranged part time jobs for the children of his friends. He became ingrained into the Athens and Georgia sports scene — simply a local guy investing in his community.

He later opened a tuxedo rental place, “Perno’s Formal Wear.” This brought him in close touch with the UGA students, including Bulldog athletes. He made them feel at home when they came around. They often shared with him what was on their mind which meant he knew the inside story with many football players — if they were upset about something, if they were thinking about leaving or had something troubling on their minds.  He offered them sage and comforting advice.

He and his wife, Gail, were celebrated for their Sunday night suppers.  Their Italian heritage meant that they enjoyed good food and plenty of it. If you were a friend of one of the Perno kids or someone in the family and were the beneficiary of an invitation to Sunday night dinner with Don and Gail, you would be filled and fulfilled when the evening was over.

Second helpings were encouraged and while Gail’s spaghetti was unmatched, there was laughter and light-hearted banter that might make you think you were on a patio in Salerno or Siena with the whole neighborhood convening at your place for dinner.

I can think of many constructive features to the life of Don Perno. He was forever the good neighbor. He always extended a helping hand. He wanted friends to enjoy a good joke or the inside story.  He was exempt from avarice and greed.

When tragedy struck in his life, it was devastating — his brother Joseph and his wife, Diane, were killed in a car wreck, leaving behind four children, Don and Gail became their parents, raising them in a comforting and loving environment that warms the heart of anybody familiar with their story.

If a person gives of himself in life, good things come about in some form.  Do-gooders want a pat on the back. The generous, altruistic and genuinely caring types — like Don and Gail Perno — were about selfless love of family and community. Surely, angels greeted them when their earthly days were over.