Eugene Parks

Mayoral candidate Eugene Parks.


Eugene Parks was unforgettable.

The fiery sermons. The intimidating presence. The rage. The charisma and razor wit. The dapper suits and fedoras. The scarring battles - personal and political.

Parks, who as a teen stirred his native Madison with a demand to end racism and nearly four tumultuous decades later became the city's first African American to compete for mayor in the general election, died Monday of natural causes at age 57.

He was found by a family member in his apartment above the bar he owned, the now-closed Mr. P's Place on the South Side, a tiny, cluttered joint he once filled with friends, late night jazz or the sound of fingers pounding on a typewriter against an injustice.

"I am shocked and saddened," said longtime friend Dr. Richard Harris, executive director of Genesis Development Corp. "We lost a tremendous person in Eugene Parks. He was a tireless advocate for civil rights and equality. He didn't try to be politically correct. He dealt with racism."

Angry, smart and convinced he was right, Parks wielded logic and fairness as weapons. He was always in the advance lines, usually a target, and he seldom retreated, railing against advantages given to the "hoity-toity." Friends and supporters said he was a good, sometimes misunderstood, ally.

"He had a fire" Regina Rhyne, a former Dane County Board member, herself a black politician who did not shrink from controversy, was not only counseled, but also, surprisingly, opposed in an election by Parks. She was stunned at the news of her friend and neighbor's death.

"Oh, he had a fire," she said. "He had the kind of fire you sometimes wanted to put out and you sometimes wanted to burn so you could be warm. You had to love the guy," she said.

"He would say things that made you get up and do something; he was ready to take on the world," she said. "He was crazy in a good kind of way."

Ray Allen, a former Madison School Board member and a longtime friend of Parks, said, "He wasn't an activist; he was a pioneer. He was trail-blazing. He wasn't building on someone else's legacy; he was creating his own."

Despite his intellect, courage and flair, Parks' death came at a time when he wasn't in the limelight, his recent influence a thin shadow of his accomplishments.

\ "A tragic figure"

"He was a tragic figure of almost Shakespearean proportions," former Mayor Paul Soglin said. "He was never able to use those skills for his own benefit."

Kendra Parks, one of his five children and a teacher at Memorial High School, said her father leaves a legacy of civic activism.

"Fundamentally, he believed in democracy," she said.

And he was at ease with his firebrand reputation. "I think dad was master of his own image," she said. "He knew how he was being construed. That's the way he wanted it."

The family is planning a memorial service for Sunday afternoon at the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, 2001 Taft St. The time has not been set.

Eugene Parks' parents, Roger and Perlean, migrated from Georgia to Madison in the mid-1940s and the family -- Parks has a twin sister, Irma -- lived on the South Side.

As a tall, skinny youth, Parks rebelled against athletic expectations and took to books and politics.

At age 16, he challenged his city with an uncompromising demand, printed on the opinion page of the Wisconsin State Journal, to end racism. He was vice president of the first class to graduate from La Follette High School and president of the state association of student councils. He attended UW-Madison for three years, but clashed with professors and dropped out.

\ "A good father"

But Parks believed in education -- his adult children have become a media consultant, psychiatrist, teacher and doctorate-holding director of a non-profit agency. He also has a 9-year-old daughter from another relationship.

"There was never a time when we could sit back and marvel at what he'd done without the challenge to do more," Kendra Parks said.

"I don't think people appreciate Gene's contribution to the progressive idea in Madison, and the sacrifice that he had to make personally and professionally, and the sacrifices his family had to make," Allen said. "It has never really come out what a good father he was, for example."

In 1968, at age 20, Parks ran unsuccessfully for Dane County sheriff and the following year he became the city's first African American City Council member, serving three terms before a defeat.

Ald. Warren Onken, who served with Parks and is retiring from the council this year, admired him and said the leaders of Madison learned to ignore him at their peril.

"He might have come across sometimes as abrasive, angry and emotional, but if you listen to his message closely, more often than not he was right," Onken said.

"It was not only on racial issues, he had ideas on a lot of things, such as housing and development issues," Onken said. "It might have been easy to ignore him, and he would get in your face, but you couldn't brush him off. Not only was he right, he was right before the rest of us had even thought about it."

Parks later ran for state office and served as staff director for a state senator, president of the local chapter of the NAACP and administrative assistant to the former fire chief, Ed Durkin.

\ Also "street-wise"

"I got to know him when he was on the City Council, but I had followed him ever since he was a kid," Durkin said from his Florida winter home. "He was sharp as heck, very bright, and also a street-wise guy, and when I took over as fire chief I needed someone who understood the black community. I needed him for recruiting. And the black community trusted him at that point.

"I always felt that Gene was misunderstood by a lot of people in Madison. He was far more intelligent than most people ever realized. He had a lot of self-confidence, but he had to battle the horrible problem of reverting back into alcoholism," Durkin said.

"Whenever he did something wrong, alcohol was almost always a factor," he said.

After Durkin retired, former Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner appointed Parks to be the city's affirmative actin officer, a move Parks claimed was a racial conspiracy to get him out of the civil service, which Sensenbrenner denied.

And in that job, Parks clashed with the city's elite.

In 1988, Sensenbrenner fired Parks but Parks fought back, launching a legal battle and running for mayor in 1989, all from his "war bunker," Mr. P's Place.

After attorneys stepped in, Parks won major court rulings, getting a city job and forcing a settlement in late 1997 in which the city paid him $441,000 plus retirement benefits.

"He took us to the courts and to the task, he was right and we were wrong," Onken said.

But by then Parks had financial troubles, his bar was closed and his marriage had collapsed.

Yet his voice never wavered. He railed against the Monona Terrace Hilton hotel and tax incremental financing. When the KKK threatened to come, he stood tall. When a young man was killed on the South Side, he led a march. And he survived a four-way primary to mount a spirited but poorly funded challenge -- he collected money in a pickle jar -- to former Mayor Sue Bauman in 1999.

\ Forceful in debates

Parks, who won just 20 percent of the vote, was gracious and dressed to the nines as he partied that night.

Bauman remembers Parks softly voicing his gratitude by phone when she pushed the settlement of his lawsuit two years earlier, and dreading to face the forceful speaker in debates.

"It's the end of an era," Bauman said. "There's nobody I can think of in the city or at the state level who was the orator he was."

And he continued to speak out, flirting with another race for mayor in 2003.

Parks, said the Rev. David Smith, of the Faith Community Christian Church, was never afraid to speak up on an issue.

But Parks kept more to himself recently, since his father died, Smith said. He would see Parks playing with his young daughter in front of the old Mr. P's or at community events.

"He had a very wry sense of humor," Smith said. "Sometimes you would wonder if he was joking or if he was serious. I know that if there was anything in the community about which I wanted to get a message across, he would be the one I certainly would want to have in my corner. He was not afraid to take the punches, and he wasn't afraid to give them, either."