Jamie Parsons served the City and Borough of Juneau as its first Parks and Recreation director, as an Assembly member and as mayor. He wore many hats as a civil servant, but it was his smile that Juneauites remembered this week.
“Jamie was always immediately approachable, he listened to people and made sure their concerns were heard,” said Win Gruening, secretary for the Alaska Committee and a longtime friend of Parsons. “He was a real people person.”
Parsons battled multiple myeloma for more than a decade before dying Saturday, surrounded by family in Mercer Island, Washington, where he received treatment. He was 74.
Like most great civic leaders, his accomplishments will affect people in his community for years to come. Everyday things like getting to call Juneau the Capital City or enjoying a glass of clean drinking water are Parsons’ accomplishments — not that he would ever have taken much credit, Gruening said.
“Many people felt Juneau was isolated and maybe didn’t deserve to be the capital. Jamie saw just the opposite.” Gruening said, recalling how Parsons took time after his one mayoral term ended in 1994 to tour Alaska and defend Juneau’s place as the capital. Parsons was the driving force behind an informal committee committed to improving the capital. That committee became the official Alaska Committee in 1994.
It was in large part because of Parsons’ efforts that past attempts to move the capital failed, Gruening said.
“He reached out to people,” Gruening said. “He showed people what Juneau really was like and how hard the people worked to make it the optimal capital city.”
Kevin Ritchie, a city employee in various capacities since the 1970s, served as city manager while Parsons was an Assembly member. He said undoubtably Parsons will be remembered for his work in Juneau’s capital campaign, but his effort to unify the water system was no small feat.
“Keeping Juneau as the capital was a big thing,” Ritchie said. “But running a government is hundreds of little things.”
Parsons, who arrived in Juneau in 1972, witnessed some of the interesting challenges that came after the 1970 unification of the City of Douglas, the City of Juneau and the Greater Juneau Borough.
Ritchie said it was once a running joke how bad Douglas water was, often brown when it came out of faucets. The contamination from beavers wasn’t part of the joke. Change was clearly needed, but the merger measure failed several times. There was something the people of Juneau wanted from the local government first: trust.
“To get the public to accept something like that, you need trust,” he said. “Jamie was instrumental in building that trust. It doesn’t sound like a big thing, but it was huge back then. He’s one of the people in Juneau that you’re going to remember as shaping Juneau. It wasn’t that Jamie knew anything about water, but he knew something about people.”
Caren Robinson, an Assembly member in 1986 and later a state representative, said she knew something about Parsons’ people-first approach. She was part of the Assembly when, for the first time, three women were serving at once. With Robinson a self-proclaimed feminist, some might have expected heads to butt with leaders, but that wasn’t the case.
“Jamie always did it with grace,” Robinson said, recalling the fun times she had serving alongside Parsons. “He was just a buddy.”
Robinson recalled a conversation she had with Parsons years after their time on the Assembly. One day, he rang her up to let her know The Little River Band, a group she mentioned on a car ride home years ago, would have a show in Seattle. He thought she would like to know.
“He just called out of the blue because he knew I cared,” Robinson said before pausing to reflect. “I just never thought he was going to die. I thought he was going to beat this, and I guess he did for a long time.”
Parsons had hopes to see more days. His enthusiasm for his civic duties was matched only perhaps by his passion for rounding third base to the home plate in a game of softball.
In an Empire article dated June 30, 2005, just after Parsons had surgery to remove a growth on his jaw, he talked about his love for the game during a trip back to Juneau to play with his old teammates. He usually pitched but didn’t that day for fear of damaging his jaw.
Even though he grounded out during his first at bat, he walked away laughing awaiting his next chance to knock one out of the park.
“My goal is to hit one out when I’m 100,” Parsons said after the game.
The Parsons family will hold a memorial service at 2 p.m. July 16 in Centennial Hall.
• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.