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Syracuse University to honor profound legacy of Francis McMillan Parks during Oct. 6 celebration
Syracuse University to honor profound legacy of Francis McMillan Parks during Oct. 6 celebrationOctober 01, 2007Kelly Homan Rodoskikahoman@syr.edu
On Sept. 1, Francis McMillan Parks quietly retired from her 25-year career at Syracuse University, where she had served over most of those years as director of Students Offering Service (SOS) and of African American Programs in Hendricks Chapel. The next day, her two daughters, Stephanie Ellen and Suzan-Lori, helped her to move into a residence hall at Mount Holyoke College to begin the next chapter of her life. Rather than settle into a traditional retirement, Parks has joined a college community as a student, studying through the Frances Perkins Scholars Program at Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, Mass.
Although Parks retired from SU in quiet fashion, the staff of Hendricks Chapel is planning a community-wide celebration on Saturday, Oct. 6, at 7 p.m. Members of the Syracuse University and greater Syracuse communities are invited to attend. The celebration will include various presentations to honor Parks’ work at the University, at Hendricks Chapel and in the community. A reception will follow in the chapel’s Noble Room. Those attending are asked to bring a canned good to donate to the Onondaga County Migrant Coalition at the Spanish Action League.
The decision to retire from SU and leave behind the important service programs she crafted through SOS and the colleagues she loved was bittersweet for Parks and something she had contemplated for more than three years.
“It was a hard decision for me, to leave something so comforting and so exhilarating, but this was the time to do it,” Parks says. “I don’t look at my age (Parks turned 70 in March) as a deterrent — I feel this is the most extraordinary age for me to do this.” She chose Mount Holyoke because of its strong emphasis on liberal arts and affirmation of women as scholars. The Perkins program enables women of a non-traditional age (the youngest in the program is 30, the oldest is 81) to pursue the requirements of a bachelor’s degree. Once a Mount Holyoke mom and aunt (her daughter, Suzan-Lori, and niece, Kathleen, are alumni of the college), Parks now attends classes in gender studies, history and political science five days a week, including a three-hour night class on Mondays. She has begun to explore what the college has to offer beyond the academic curricula. “I always imagined being a pupil; one is a continuous learner,” she says.
The legacy that Parks leaves at SU is deep and profound. After many years moving around the globe as a military family, Parks and her late husband, Donald, settled their three children in Syracuse in 1981 so that Don could work on a doctoral degree. Francis also became engaged in the life of the University, working as an instructor and advisor.
She started at SU’s English Language Institute and then served as an academic advisor at University College. In 1992, Parks became director of Students Offering Service (SOS) and of African American programs at Hendricks Chapel. That title, though, was multi-faceted — teacher, counselor, leader, activist, volunteer and storyteller. Her childhood — as one of six children growing up in Greenville, Texas, during the start of the Civil Rights Movement — and the discrimination that she and others endured played a big part in shaping her as an activist, volunteer and constant promoter of social conscience.
The programs she created and championed through SOS — from a blanket drive in the winter to a summer chess camp for kids from inner-city Syracuse, resemble the fabric of the quilts that she so lovingly worked to create, both individually and through the Hendricks Chapel Quiltmakers. Among the other programs that students participate in through SOS are Habitat for Humanity, International Young Scholars, the CROP Walk for Hunger, green-ups and clean-ups, Libba’s Place Coffeehouse, the annual Sojourner Storytelling Conference and holiday basket drives.
“Francis Parks has taught all of us how to live passionately, love deeply, to cross boundaries, to listen to each other’s stories, and in so doing recognize that we are honoring each other’s humanity,” says Rachael Gazdick, who served as assistant director of SOS for several years and is now director of Hendricks Chapel’s Office for Community Engagement and Integrative Learning. “For almost two decades, the programs she has now left in our care have been challenging local, national and global injustices. Mrs. Parks knows what it takes to create a more just and caring society. She calls of us to tap into our gifts and talents and put them to good use in taking on our world’s most pressing issues. Thanks to Francis Parks, residents of the city of Syracuse, university faculty, staff and students have a place to collectively come together to take action.”
To her colleagues, Parks is known as simply amazing.
“Francis always brings a passion to everything that she does, whether she is helping students with a community service project or talking about civil rights issues at our MLK meetings,” says Ginny Yerdon, special events coordinator at Hendricks Chapel and a colleague of Parks for more than 15 years. “Francis always put her heart and soul into each issue.”
Yerdon says that Parks has a special gift of always putting others first and encouraging them to live to their fullest potential. “I can remember years ago when she invited me to lunch to have a conversation about continuing my education,” she says. “Until that moment I didn’t think I could, but her encouragement helped me take the first step back. I continue to work on my degree today.”
Parks was a longtime and integral member of the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee, which meets year-round to plan the annual celebration each January. “Francis always spoke with relevance and compassion regarding the Civil Rights period,” says Grant Williams, assistant director and major of crime prevention and community relations in the Department of Public Safety and another longtime member of the committee. “Francis always offered reflections at the beginning of each MLK meeting, revealing historical viewpoints from activists/scholars from Rosa Parks and James Baldwin to Marion Wright Edelman and Charles J. Ogletree. Her professional storytelling style brought their connection to the life of Dr. King so alive that committee members felt very much a part of it also.”
The Rev. Thomas V. Wolfe, dean of Hendricks Chapel, says he always appreciated the social conscience that Parks kept at the forefront of the chapel’s activities. “One of my earliest memories of Francis, when I was a new chaplain at Hendricks, was a Chaplain’s Council meeting. We were dealing with a bias-related dilemma, and after much conversation Francis stiffened up and said, `Why don’t we stop being nice to each other and call it what it what it is — it’s racism,'” says Wolfe. “I have always appreciated her ability to cut through to the middle of a sensitive issue and to help us deal with it and learn from it.” Parks always was one to recognize and reinforce acts of justice and to remind others when they needed to as well, he says.
Wolfe says Parks’ nurturing instinct was always at the surface of all that she did, and particularly in dealing with students in times of need. After one particular bias-related incident on the SU campus, Parks met with students at the chapel at 6 a.m., bringing a basket of apples to help them keep up their strength. “Having lived through different eras, her own experience helped her to work with others in the naming of their experiences.”
Wolfe says he also has profound respect for the hospitality Parks offers and the value she places on each and every person. “She has never used e-mail or cell phones because to her, it is always about the person, and mass communication is not how you build a relationship.”
Even though she has now immersed herself in a different college community, Parks keeps Syracuse University close to her heart. “I have already had long talks with the dean of Eliot House (akin to SU’s Hendricks Chapel) and given her brochures from Hendricks,” says Parks. “I am building on what I did at Hendricks to do this — and this is only possible because of what I have brought with me.”