During the day, he was Willie J. Perry, a Birmingham native and shop manager at Lakeview district window distributor J.F. Day & Company. But in the mornings before work and nights after work, he was the Batman of Birmingham, driving around in a 1971 Thunderbird he dubbed the Rescue Ship to aid people.
Also known by many as the Batmobile, his souped-up 1971 Ford Thunderbird was equipped with two TVs, an Atari game system, a refrigerator, running water and a telephone, a toaster oven, and flashing red and yellow lights. Perry patrolled the highways and byways with his ‘Rescue Ship’ in the early 1980s to help people in distress.
He would change a tire free of charge for stranded drivers, give rides to the elderly, drive kids home from the hospital, and even pay for lodging for people who were stranded. The Titusville resident once helped four University of Tennessee students stranded by snow. He found a motel room for them, and when the students did not have enough to pay for it, he helped them pay for it. Perry also once foiled an attempted robbery at a pharmacy.
“Batman was known for helping people in distress. And that’s my image too,” he said in an interview.
Perry was moved to help people after he heard that a woman was raped by a group of men who had seemingly stopped to help after her car had broken down, according to BhamWiki.com. Perry decided to take to the streets to prove that people could be trusted.
When making his rounds, Perry wore a white jumpsuit with brown trim and a white helmet with a red bat logo on each side. A clear plastic shield at the front of the hood of his ‘Rescue Ship’ was his motto: “Will Help Anyone in Distress.”
“He was a genius, and he did great all through high school. He knew he could do anything he wanted, but he decided to put all of his efforts towards helping other people instead of just advancing his own career,” Judy Stickney, Perry’s niece, told RISE NEWS in 2015.
With or without his Rescue Ship, Perry lived to better the lives of the people around him, according to his friends and family. Even before he was Batman, he cruised around on a customized motorcycle looking for ways he could help others, Lee Shook, a Birmingham-native radio DJ and filmmaker who was working on a documentary about Perry, told RISE NEWS.
“We’re talking about barely post-Civil Rights Movement Birmingham. Segregation was still very much an awful reality,” Shook said. “There was still a lot of anger and resentment in both the black and white communities, and he was this real person that did everything he could to help you, white or black, rich or poor.”
Perry’s daughter Marquetta Hill-King said she never understood her father while growing up. She recalled that when she was in school, she sometimes accompanied her father as he drove around town in his Rescue Ship to help people.
“I thought people were laughing at us because of the car,” Hill-King told Alabama News Center. “But when I started riding and seeing the passion from people in the city, it really gave me a different look at what he was doing. In a sense, he was our superhero.”
Perry was featured on the ABC television show, That’s Incredible, in 1982. Two years later, music icon Michael Jackson looked for Perry to ask for a ride in his car when the Jacksons were in town rehearsing for their 1984 Victory tour.
Not too long after, Perry’s life was cut short by a tragedy. The car that Birmingham’s Batman used to help people ultimately took his life. According to the Associated Press, he succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning as the car was running in the garage of J.F. Day and Company on a cold January night in 1985. He was 44 years old.
Thirty-one years after his death, his daughter and others formed the Willie J. Perry Foundation to donate used cars to single parents in need of transportation. The foundation also announced in 2016 that it would pay weekly visits to feed the homeless and elderly while also restoring Perry’s car.
“He truly believed that he could make the world a better place just by making the effort each day to help people…And that’s what we all can learn from Willie Perry,” Shook said of Birmingham’s Batman.