Daniel Perkins

It's a story Daniel Perkins said he's told more than 300 times – how a shoe-shine boy from Johnstown graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, became a U.S. Marine and then a successful business leader.

Just ask him and he'll gladly retell it.

"It's kind of a way of life at this point," he said in a recent telephone interview.

Perkins is owner and CEO of MTS Technologies Inc., of Arlington, Virginia. MTS is a service-disabled veteran and minority-owned small business with an office in Johnstown.

He is founder of the The Challenge Program Inc. in Johnstown, a non-profit organization preparing students for the future.

It all began when Perkins was an 8-year-old boy from Johnstown's Prospect neighborhood. One day, he approach the owner of the "Minute Car Wash" – John P. Murtha.

"Can I shine shoes here?" the boy said, clutching his homemade shoeshine box.

"You can shine shoes here, but you can't hold up cars," Murtha told him. "If you hold up the cars, I'm going to ask you to leave."

It was a key moment in Perkins' life as he and the decorated Vietnam War veteran became student and mentor.

Perkins called Murtha's influence "profound."

"I was impressed with the degree of attention he gave me," Perkins said. "He always had time for me. He was an extended parent when I was at his car wash."

Perkins said he remembers the day when he was 12 when Murtha asked him: "Daniel, what are you going to do after you graduate from Pitt and get out of the Marine Corps?"

"I didn't know I was going to do either one," he said. "Those were the challenges he put before me and I ended up doing both."

Perkins graduated from Greater Johnstown High School before getting his degree from Pitt-Johnstown in 1974. He earned a master's degree from Pepperdine University before starting his own business – MTS Technologies Inc.

Perkins served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. assigned as a communication officer.

He started The Challenge Program in 2003.

The program, while giving monetary rewards to high school students, also matches them with business leaders.

Perkins implemented the program at Bishop McCort High School in 2003 with the help of Barbara Grandinetti, who at the time was a school board member.

"I wanted to give something back to the community that raised me," Perkins said. "How a shoe-shine boy was able to grow up and achieve and challenge himself and accomplish some of the things I accomplished."

The program now reaches into five states, connecting with more than 465,000 students and awarding more than $3 million in scholarships.

Perkins offers this advice to students:

"Focus on what you want to do, strive to achieve it and work hard," he said. "It's not an easy street. There will be challenges. But you've got to want it."

Patrick Buchnowski is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5061. Follow him on Twitter @PatBuchnowskiTD.