When I asked LSA senior Becky Parks if she could name any of her father’s heroes, only one came to mind: Robert Kennedy.
It didn’t surprise me, given what I’ve learned in the past few days about a man I never knew, Christopher Parks, a longtime reporter who died last Friday at the age of 51.
You may hear the words “liberty” and “freedom” tossed around a lot, but Chris Parks was a real liberal.
He had opinions about everything, but he knew how to be objective. And he knew when to stick with what he believed in – even when everyone disagreed.
Parks, a University alum, was co-editor in chief of The Michigan Daily in 1973, then went on to work for the United Press International, writing and managing things for UPI in Lansing. When his wife said she wanted to work for the Detroit Institute of Arts, he said OK, even though it meant giving up his bureau chief’s post in Lansing.
Before making the move, he insisted not only that the Parks family live in Detroit, but that Rebecca and Joshua attend the Detroit Public Schools, because he knew his kids would receive a fine education there, regardless of what anyone said about the city and its schools.
And he always rooted for the Detroit Tigers, no matter how bad they were doing, even when they suffered losing season after losing season.
Though he wasn’t real big on Michigan sports, he was fiercely loyal to the Wolverines, and “when they got rid of Band Day at Michigan Stadium, he was outraged that they would rob the essential college experience away from the band,” noted John Lindstrom, a friend and fellow reporter in Lansing.
As for reporting and editing skills, his friends say, you couldn’t ask for a better colleague.
There were difficult stories to report. When he was the UPI’s Lansing bureau chief in 1982, 17 percent of the state was unemployed and one third was relying on the state for some kind of economic assistance.
“The way he would attack a story – if you could see him do it, he was always doing something – twirling his hair, he would tap his fingers, tug on his beard, and he’d have this real intense look on his face until he got it done,” said Rick Pluta, now a Michigan Public Radio reporter who worked under Parks at UPI.
“Having Chris as your editor was a situation you approached with a lot of trepidation because he was always finding something, but there was always a sense of relief when he was your editor because he was a parachute. When Parks got done you knew there wouldn’t be any holes in your story. You knew it would be thorough and accurate.
“He was always asking, ‘What about from that angle, what about from this angle?’ “
When the UPI finally closed its Detroit bureau, Parks moved over to the Detroit Legal News. To better understand the issues he covered at the Legal News, he got a law degree from Wayne State University in 1996.
But soon after getting the degree, he found out he had a degenerative neurological disease. It slowly ate away at his abilities. When he could no longer write and edit, he devoted his time to charity. One of the things he did was fold clothes at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit.
Although being a prominent journalist with a law degree, he saw no shame in that work. After all, “I didn’t know until I was in middle school that it wasn’t normal for a dad to vacuum or clean,” Becky Parks said.
And he continued with the charities until his body would no longer allow him to perform the work.
“I think he was a true populist in the best sense of the world,” Pluta said. “He really believed that, given time and the right information, people would reach the right conclusions, eventually.”
He believed that, in some way, everyone could work to make the world a better place. Because if there’s nothing to hope for, if people can’t make things better for themselves and each other, why bother with journalism?