A few months ago, elementary teacher Nikki Parsons went digging through the photo archives at Redondo Beach City Hall for a school project.
She wasn’t particularly looking for her father, former councilman and city commissioner John Parsons, but she couldn’t miss him. In photos of seemingly every civic gathering over the past quarter century, he was somewhere in the frame.
“It was hilarious,” she said. “I saw the back of his head, or a shoulder, or some part of his body at almost every single event in the pictures at City Hall. It was like a ‘Where in the World is John Parsons?’ game, and I’m seeing him everywhere, all over Redondo Beach. He loved this city.”
John Parsons’ civic omnipresence came to an abrupt, unexpected end when he suffered a stroke last Tuesday night and died 36 hours later at Little Company of Mary Hospital.
Friends, family, and former colleagues took solace in the fact that Parsons, 60, died after doing what he loved to do, where he loved to do it – he’d just finished speaking, passionately, before the City Council at City Hall.
“He left us doing the one thing he loved most,” said Chris Cagle, a former councilman who served on the dais with Parsons.
Parsons had not missed a City Council meeting since 1987. Last Tuesday, he was at his quintessential. He was helping marshal an item on the agenda regarding funding for public arts, and he’d closely read the staff report and noticed that a key trigger in the funding mechanism was missing – one that linked arts funding to city capital improvement projects, which he’d approved as a planning commissioner. As was his way, he was maneuvering around council chambers, pulling city officials outside to go over – and correct – the report, ensuring that the issue would be fully and fairly heard.
As the item was heard by council, Parsons came to the podium to speak. He made his “couple points of clarification” and put the issue in the larger context of how other cities accomplish the goal of public art and within city’s own existing codes.
“I think this is really a long time coming,” Parsons told the council, in closing. “…So I’m really excited this is moving forward.”
Those were Parsons’ last public words. He was among the last to speak before council approved the item, with his recommendations included. As council adjourned, he made his way out of council chambers and suddenly appeared “wobbly” on his feet, as several people witnessed. Someone helped him make it to a chair in the lobby, where he sat down and suffered a massive stroke. Paramedics were called, and within minutes he was wheeled out on a gurney. Both Cagle and Mayor Steve Aspel tried to comfort him.
“I told him, ‘You are going to be okay, John,’” Cagle recalled. “He kind of waved at me a little. If I’d known that was the last thing I was going to say to him, I would have said something else.”
“John was for all intents and purposes dead when the fire department took him to the hospital, so his last recollection was speaking very eloquently about the arts commission and funding for the arts at City Hall,” said Aspel. “That was the last thing he talked about… He basically had the last word at City Council that night, and as usual, he was right. And that’s probably the way John Parsons would have wanted to go out.”
Parsons’ political legacy in Redondo Beach is both far-reaching and hard to measure. His fingerprints are on almost every significant project or policy initiative within the city for the last two decades, but his influence extended far beyond Redondo Beach’s borders – most notably in his leadership building a coalition to protect the Los Angeles Air Force Base from closure.
Former Congresswoman Jane Harman said point-blank that without Parsons the base would not have survived federal closures.
“More than any other local resident, he should be credited with saving the L.A. Air Force Base from two rounds of base closings – and assuring that the economic engine of the beach cities stayed right here,” Harman said. “He was a great partner to me during my nine terms in Congress – and the fact that we were in different political parties made no difference. What a huge loss of a great leader and dear friend!”
But perhaps Parsons’ greatest contribution was the role he played in connecting the dots within the community. He founded Leadership Redondo, served as chair of the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce, was an ardent Rotarian, and played a very active role in getting kids involved in civic matters. With his Blackberry always in hand, he was continuously working behind the scenes, introducing people, cajoling officials, hatching ideas, keeping issues moving forward, and providing the connecting fabric that makes a community cohere.
“He was more than just the Air Force base,” said Greg Hill, former Redondo Beach mayor. “That was just a manifestation of who he was. Here was a guy absolutely and totally in love with this community. He loved Redondo Beach and everything about it, but most of all the people who live here. He wanted to – and I think did – leave a legacy that he made the community where he lived a better place.”
“He went way beyond the call of duty,” Hill said. “And I think people kind of took it for granted John would always be there to watch the store – we can sit back because John is on it. It’s a rare thing in today’s society. He was an honest man, and he made sure the rest of us were being held accountable and things were being done in an honest way.”
Parsons was born and grew up in nearby Westchester, the second oldest of four children. His father died when he was seven, and his oldest sister suffered chronic health problems, so early in life he took responsibility for his family. Aspel, who first met Parsons when both were in first grade, later played football with him at St. Bernard High School. He said Parsons was a hard-hitting linebacker and sometimes lineman who even then had a knack for seeing the bigger picture.
“He was called ‘Lawyer John’ when we played football,” Aspel said. “Because he was always debating the coach about tactics.”
His dream had been to attend the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. The appointment went to another reportedly more politically connected applicant – Parsons instead attended El Camino College and USC – but his love for the military would be a lifelong passion.
Parsons grew up a mile from his future wife, Mary Ann, but actually met her in Hawaii. He was visiting as part of a Sea Scout program, and she was there performing as a dancer. She recalled that she was dating “a silly friend of John’s” at the time, but he immediately caught her eye. She was 16, and he was 20. He was a tall, strapping young man and wore his hair in a ponytail.
“I saw him, and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness,’” said Mary Ann.
The two began dating as soon as they returned to the mainland. They would be together for the next 40 years, marrying in 1980, and had two children, Danielle and Nikki. The family moved to Redondo Beach in 1987. Parsons’ initial civic involvement was with the Jaycees, and he was immediately hooked. Soon he began getting involved in city politics.
For the rest of his life, Parsons would frequently and publicly thank his wife, who was a teacher and largely apolitical, for supporting his voracious civic enthusiasms.
“I told him, ‘Do what you want to do and run for what you want to run for, but don’t expect me to run your campaigns,’” she said. “‘Just tell me what dress to wear and what party to go to.’”
Dinnertime at the Parsons home was a lively affair. Though invariably busy – his daughter noted that even since he passed, his cell phone has kept beeping with meeting notifications several times a day – Parsons always made a point to be home for family dinners most days of the week. And conversation was inevitably filled with storytelling and political debate.
“Six nights out of ten we’d have dinner together,” Nikki said. “We talked and laughed. My sister laughed so hard one time she fell out of her chair. He loved stories – how long it took to get through city council, that’s how long it took him to get through a story at home. Danielle and I could hold a debate when were probably 10th graders – he liked to talk to us, and we couldn’t just throw out opinions, ‘Oh that is stupid…’ You’d have to explain why.”
Parsons worked most of his professional life locally as a realtor, though he frequently thanked his wife for putting up with his decreased income that resulted from the fulltime hours he put into serving as a District 5 councilman from 1999 to 2007. Prior to moving to Redondo Beach, he worked in aerospace, managing the engineering department for Hughes Aircraft. Last year, he became fulltime public policy professional, working as a manager for the South Bay Workforce Investment Board.
But no single job titled ever encompassed what Parsons did. His ultimate role was simply as a citizen, albeit one who took civic responsibilities more seriously than almost any other, and did so with great effectiveness.
“In a handful of people I dealt with over two decades, John was among the most capable, and the most available for any and all local issues,” said Harman, now the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington D.C. think-tank. “…I just think it’s a huge loss. It will resonate throughout the district. In addition to the fact that his family, obviously, grieves him, so do the rest of us. They don’t make people like him very often. I am very fortunate he was such a dear friend, and such an enormous local hero.”
Cagle recalled encountering Parsons outside a contentious waterfront planning meeting at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center a decade ago. Parsons was surrounded by people largely assailing him and the Council, but stayed for more than an hour, answering each and every question.
Finally, someone asked him, “John, why do you do this?”
He responded emphatically, even joyously. “Because I love this stuff!”
He remained deeply influential in local politics until his dying day. “If you had John Parsons on board, you were halfway there already half way there,” Cagle said. “Maybe three-quarters of the way.”
Mary Ann said she felt some peace with the timing her husband’s passing. She noted his father died in his 20s and grandfather in his 30s, so her husband always worried about surviving to see his children into adulthood, which he did – Nikki is 25, and Danielle 22. Danielle, in fact, followed her father’s footsteps into public policy and now works in Sacramento.
“They became like political buddies,” Mary Ann said. “They’d go to the Capital together and see who knew the most people.”
She said that after the stroke, it appeared Parsons might survive, but without the ability to speak.
“Can you imagine John Parson not being able to talk? It would have been like a curse,” Mary Ann said. “He was at a city council meeting, doing what he loved. He is reading the agenda in heaven now. I think he is making the council up there. Or he’s on the ballot, at least, right now.”
A funeral Mass is planned for 10:30 a.m. Aug. 30 at American Martyrs Church, 624 15th St., Manhattan Beach, and a reception will follow at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.