The Columns

Frank Parsons, Longtime W&L Administrator and Wearer of Many Hats, Dies at 87

— by on January 29th, 2016

Frank Arthur Parsons, who worked in multiple areas of the administration at his alma mater, Washington and Lee University, from 1954 to 1999, died Jan. 28, 2016, in his home at Kendal at Lexington. He was 87.

“It’s hard to know where to begin when describing exactly what Frank did during his 45 years here, because Frank did just about everything,” said W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio.

“His multifaceted career encompassed the integration and coeducation of the student body, both of which enriched W&L, as well as the improvement and expansion of our facilities,” continued Ruscio. “It’s remarkable to think of all the positive changes Frank shepherded and of his devotion to W&L. His legacy will endure for many generations to come.”

Parsons’ positions at W&L included director of publicity; assistant to three W&L presidents (Fred Cole, Robert Huntley, John Wilson); director of institutional research; director of planning and development; university editor; coordinator of capital planning; director of special communications projects; coordinator of facilities planning; director of public relations and information; director of sports information; and director of the news office.

Frank Arthur Parsons was born on May 26, 1928, in Staunton, Virginia. He served in the Army from 1945 to 1948 and 1950 to 1951. While in the service, he wrote for the Pacific Stars & Stripes.

After the military, he worked as the managing editor of the Clifton Forge (Virginia) Daily Review from 1949 to 1950 and during the summers of 1952, 1953 and 1954, while he was an undergraduate at W&L.

Parsons graduated from W&L in 1954 with a B.A. in political science. He belonged to the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

He came to work at W&L on Sept. 1, 1954. During his 45 years, he oversaw the fraternity renaissance of the late 1980s. He served on the Coeducation Steering Committee that prepared the university for the arrival of women undergraduates in the mid-1980s. The road that leads to the sorority houses is named Frank Parsons Way for his role in that residential project. The Lenfest Center and Sydney Lewis Hall took shape under his oversight. He oversaw the publication of the book “Come Cheer for Washington and Lee: The University at 250 Years.” He hired Sally Mann as the university photographer and encouraged her budding career.

In 1982, President Huntley told the W&L alumni magazine: “In every success which the school has achieved in the past 15 years, Frank has played a vital and usually essential part.”

In addition to a strong work ethic, Parsons had a waggish sense of humor, as exemplified by what became known as “The Squirrel Memo.” In 1974, when plans for Leyburn Library were underway at the university, he filled out an application for federal assistance under the Higher Education Act. In convoluted bureaucratese, the form asked several questions about the effects of the library’s construction on wildlife. Parsons replied in a matter-of-fact yet tongue-in-cheek way about those animals. “They have no apparent difficulty in adjusting to relocations brought on by non-federally supported projects,” he wrote. “The library would appear to have no capacity for affecting the squirrels’ or other animals’ genes.”

President Huntley soon received a reply from the bemused director of the office within the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. “I salute Washington and Lee and the application preparer anonymous. . . . The mountain of paperwork which confronts me daily somehow seemed much smaller the day I read about the squirrels in Lexington, Virginia.”

The Wall Street Journal picked up the story from a W&L news release, writing approvingly in an Oct. 24, 1974, editorial of Parsons’ memo and HEW’s sense of humor. W&L, in turn, gave Parsons two one-of-a-kind honorary degrees: an M.S. (Master of Squirrels) and a D.F.A. (Doctor of Federal Aid).

For his contributions to the university, Parsons received honors from the students, with the Ring-tum Phi Award, and from alumni, with the Lynchburg Citation from the Lynchburg Alumni Chapter. When he retired in 1999, the city of Lexington issued a proclamation of thanks and appreciation to Parsons “for his sensitive and loyal service to both Washington and Lee and to the City.”

In 2003, Sally Mann and her husband, Larry Mann (a 1970 graduate of W&L), established an endowment in Parsons’ honor that helped fund the first studio art program in photography at the university.

At W&L, Parsons belonged to the academic and leadership honor societies of Phi Beta Kappa, Beta Gamma Sigma and Omicron Delta Kappa. In Lexington, he was an active member of the Fortnightly Club, That Club and the Pub Club.

His community service included the Lexington Chamber of Commerce, the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council, the board of Lime Kiln Arts and the Whetstone Pond Association of Abbott Village, Maine. He served as a deacon of the Manly Memorial Baptist Church. After retirement, he directed the restoration and rebuilding of the Lexington Presbyterian Church following the devastating 2000 fire.

He is survived by his daughter, Laura Parsons. Parsons’ wife, Henrietta “Henny” Hoylman Parsons, died in 1997; their son, Gregory, passed away in 1973.

A service to celebrate the life and legacy of Frank Parsons will take place on Saturday, Feb. 6, at 1 p.m. in Lee Chapel on the W&L campus. The Revs. William M. Klein, pastor of Lexington Presbyterian Church, and J. Michael Wilkins, pastor of Manly Memorial Baptist Church, will officiate. A reception will follow in the Hotchkiss Alumni House at Washington and Lee. The service will be livestreamed: http://livestream.com/wlu/frank-parsons

Read a lengthy profile of Frank Parsons from the Summer 1999 alumni magazine, published on the occasion of his retirement from the university.