My Turn: Jamie Parsons: An uncommon leader

  • By WIN GRUENING
  • Thursday, January 7, 2016 1:00am
  • Opinion

This last year, Juneau lost a former mayor and Assemblyman and one of its staunchest supporters and cheerleaders. He wasn’t born here but became so identified with the Capital City during his tenure you couldn’t mention Juneau without talking about him. Jamie Parsons died Dec. 26, 2015, in Seattle after a long, valiant battle with cancer. He was 74 years old.

When Jamie first arrived in Alaska in 1972 as the director of the newly expanded Juneau Parks and Recreation Department, he took over from the highly revered Bill Ordway, a legendary Juneau basketball coach. Accordingly, he was greeted with some suspicion and distrust as an “outsider”.

While most of us think Parks and Recreation is a rather benign, sleepy department in city government, you only need to spend a few days mediating disputes and concerns between weekend athletes, coaches, school officials, pool users and parents — all competing for field, pool and gym time — to realize this is not the case. It was here Jamie honed his political skills that served him so well later in his career.

During this time, he oversaw the introduction of slow-pitch softball, American Legion baseball, expansion of the Ordway basketball league, the opening of Augustus Brown Pool and establishing Eaglecrest Ski Area.

Jamie’s greatest assets were his disarming sense of humor that diffused any situation and his willingness to seek out and listen to everybody’s concerns. Regardless of the outcome of any issue, people who met him left knowing they had a friend. It wasn’t long before Jamie’s most ardent detractors became his greatest supporters.

Jamie left city government in 1977 but his inherent desire to serve led him to run for Assembly in 1981. He was a natural campaigner and loved going door-to-door talking with people about how city government could be improved. On election night, Jamie swept his nearest competitor by a 3-1 margin and ultimately served three three-year terms.

In 1991, at the urging of many people, Jamie ran for mayor. This was a pivotal time for our community, as Juneau had weathered several capital move attempts and more threats were on the horizon. After winning the election handily, he wisely spent much of his time as mayor cementing relationships with business and city leaders in Southeast and throughout the state. Jamie understood the importance of these relationships in maintaining Juneau’s position as the center of state government.

He also realized our community must remain proactive in addressing capital move sentiment and was a driving force with KTOO behind implementing C-Span-type coverage of the Legislature — the forerunner for our Gavel-to-Gavel programming today. Believing access to the capital was crucial, Jamie was an early advocate of Juneau road access and worked closely with Alaska Airlines to help pave the way for a precision landing system at our airport.

Jamie and his wife, Mary Beth, served as our official ambassadors at government functions and, perhaps more significantly, while hosting legislators and other visitors from around the state in their home. It’s hard to say how many people over the years enjoyed their warmth and gracious hospitality.

In 1994, Juneau was again confronted with a ballot initiative to move the capital, this time to Wasilla. Instead of running for re-election, Jamie chose to lead the effort as chairman of the Alaska Committee to defeat this measure. Traveling extensively throughout the state, knocking on doors, speaking at Rotary Clubs and editorial boards, Jamie did what he did best – making friends. Later that year, the capital move vote failed by a margin of 10,000 votes and Jamie was deservedly chosen as Juneau Citizen of the Year.

Jamie also championed Juneau in a variety of other ways — on community softball and basketball teams, as president of Glacier Valley Rotary (twice), as division director at Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development and as executive director of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce — just to name a few. He loved his adopted hometown and continued to serve it until 2005, when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

Jamie approached this challenge like all the others in his life, with a fierce competitiveness and a remarkably positive outlook. Forced to move to Seattle for treatment, he kept in touch with his Alaska friends with frequent phone calls and occasional visits. Everyone, including his doctors, were amazed by his constitution and incredible optimism in the face of grueling treatments. With the unfailing support of Mary Beth, instead of the few years he was told he had left, Jamie lived almost 11 years beyond his initial diagnosis.

Jamie was an exceptional husband, father, brother and friend. He will be missed by all those that knew him. He was a public servant in the truest sense who set an example for all of us to follow.

• Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and is active in community and statewide organizations.

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