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Philanthropist W. Baxter Perkinson donates $1 million for St. Michael’s project

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Philanthropist W. Baxter Perkinson Jr. stands inside the Perkinson Arts Center under construction at St. Michael’s Episcopal School in Richmond. The retired dentist is giving $1 million to the school.

Philanthropist W. Baxter Perkinson Jr., who built a successful dental practice spread across the region and became a passionate arts advocate, is pledging $1 million to St. Michael’s Episcopal School in Richmond for a new assembly hall.

The donation by Perkinson, 77, and his wife, Elaine, marks the biggest contribution to the One. Together. capital campaign. The school, which has about 400 students, relocated from Bon Air to the W.E. and Dale Harman Singleton Campus.

The Hubbard Hall building, which houses lower school grades, was built in 2017. The second phase includes the 10,960-square-foot assembly hall set for completion this month.

Head of School Robert E. Gregg III said the school has a long history of performance art and that having sufficient space for that large-stage capacity was necessary.

“This gives us additional classrooms, studio space for both fine arts and music instruction, and it gives us appropriate concert hall acoustics in the performance space,” Gregg said. “It is also a space for us to gather the full community, which we’ve not been able to do since we were back on the Bon Air campus.”

Perkinson was born in Petersburg and raised in Powhatan County alongside his twin brother. His mother and father moved the family to a rural area, where the twins milked the family’s cows every morning and night. It was pretty bleak, he said.

“I mean, I was poor and hated it,” Perkinson said. “And I had huge ambitions.”

At age 12, the family moved to Richmond, where Perkinson had the opportunity to go to the dentist for the first time. Using the money he had earned running a paper route, he was able to go to the dental school at Virginia Commonwealth University, then known as the Medical College of Virginia.

Once a week, he caught the bus and went downtown, where the teachers and students worked on his teeth.

“I just was infatuated,” Perkinson said. “I decided then I was going to be a dentist.”

After finishing dental school at age 25, Perkinson opened W. Baxter Perkinson Jr. D.D.S. While going on to expand the practice into Virginia Family Dentistry — with 15 locations and over 500 employees — Perkinson was introduced to the arts by his wife, who asked him to take a watercolor painting class with her.

“Since then, I’ve painted thousands of paintings,” he said.

Instead of selling his works, he either donates or contributes the paintings to auctions to raise money for different causes, he said.

St. Michael’s Senior Development Officer Mary King Coleman said Perkinson had taught art classes, contributed to auctions and given his paintings to retiring teachers over the years.

Virginia Commonwealth University, he said, gets many of his paintings and donations. The Perkinson Building was opened in 2009 as an addition to the VCU School of Dentistry. In the new VCU Adult Outpatient Pavilion, a little over half of the 1,000 art pieces decorating the halls were donated by Perkinson.

The Baxter Perkinson Center for Art and Education, which opened in Chester in 2019, was also founded and dedicated to transforming and enriching the community through art. He also donated $1 million to Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, which houses the Perkinson Arts Center.

“My wife and I ... we said if we ever had more money than we needed, then it would always be gifted to something about education because we both benefited so much by becoming educated,” Perkinson said. “My life was fulfilled completely because of education.”

Two of Perkinson’s grandchildren attend St. Michael’s, and two others graduated from there, he said. He said the gift, given on behalf of him and his wife of 57 years, gives them as much satisfaction as the community and goals they’re giving it to.

“His gift will help us realize that [assembly hall] goal,” Coleman said. “It’s an amazing gift for St. Michael’s School.”

Today, Perkinson does art demonstrations out of his house. With more time on his hands during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he began working with acrylic paint. When people leave from his demos, they leave with the confidence that they can do it, too, he said.

“I’m just glad that I had a chance to find it [art] rather than live my whole life without it,” he said.