The Colgate Scene
March 1999
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'Looking for wisdom and friendships'

by James Leach
[IMAGE] In the mountains east of Los Angeles, Big Bear Lake's fifth graders were up in arms. A developer planned to build condominiums on the south shore of their lake, where 23 eagles roost.

     "What could we do?" asked their teacher, Doug Parks '60.

     "We could . . . write letters?"

     "Yeah, we could write letters."

     "We could . . . sing songs?"

     "Yeah, we could sing songs."

     "We could strap ourselves to the trees?"

     "Now we're getting close."

     "We could put ourselves in front of the bulldozers!?"


     And so began an act of civil disobedience that contributed to City Hall intervening and preserving the eagles' nesting area by swapping it for a piece of public land on the north shore. CNN's decision to broadcast coverage of the controversy nationwide underscored the students' emotions.

     "I keep a copy of the CNN tape at school," said Parks, as he recalled more than a quarter century of "working for change." He told his story in late fall, "the season of the bear," he said, "when the bear retreats to his cave to reflect on his wanderings. It is the season of introspection."

     Parks credits Colgate with giving him "the four cornerposts of my life. I learned about spirituality there from Ken Morgan. I learned to be a leader. Colgate taught me about competitiveness -- good and bad -- and gave me a fundamental sports background that has carried me for 40 years. And it is such a beautiful place that it gave me a sense of what it means to respect Mother Earth." He majored in psychology with the legendary George Estabrooks, was a research assistant to Professor Robert Myers, and was introduced to the great religions of the world at Chapel House and in Morgan's classroom.

     Directly out of college Parks deferred plans for graduate school in psychology to help his mother recover from injuries that she suffered in an auto accident on the way to his graduation. A Presbyterian minister visited the Parks' home often during that recovery, and encouraged Doug to reconsider his graduate school plans and look into Union Theological Seminary. The seminary's interdenominational approach -- "priests, Hindus, Muslims, even atheists attended" -- appealed to Parks and he committed to attend.

     But not before making an extended personal odyssey. Traveling alone, bankrolled by money saved from his NSF research earnings at Colgate, he set off for western Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, "looking for wisdom and friendships." In nine months of hitching rides, living with new acquaintances, subsisting on cheese and bread, he was exposed to a different view of America, "as seen through the eyes of others. I argued with communists, debated with socialists and danced the hora. It was shocking and revealing and it reinforced some of my own feelings about racism in the United States."

     He returned to enroll at Union, 35 pounds lighter but "alive and excited about what I had learned." Influenced by the seminary's "ecumenical theology" and the teachings of faculty such as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, Parks' beliefs gelled further. At the end of his first year he volunteered for Operation Crossroads Africa and was commissioned to the newly emerging African nation of Somalia to help that country's first-ever Olympic team with the rudiments of nutrition, training and the fundamentals of western sports.

     At the end of his second year at Union, Parks and two fellow students started the Student Interracial Ministry, designed to place black theology students in white churches, and white theology students in black churches. He used his psychology training in role-playing exercises to prepare the students, though he says today, "I had no idea how dramatic it would be."

     His own assignment took him to Charleston, S.C. His first night in town the local minister and chapter president of the NAACP took Parks' measure on civil rights. The following morning Parks was one of a dozen clergy leading a civil rights march, 500 strong, through the streets of Charleston. "I had to come to some conclusions right there. Either I had the faith that I was doing what I believed in, or I had to get out."

     The target, Parks said, "was to alter the course of racism in that city." By the end of the summer they had integrated the city's water fountains, public restrooms, hotels, restaurants and swimming pools, even a beach on the Atlantic that had been reserved for "Whites Only." Parks describes that summer as: "the first of many experiences where I learned that a single human being can make real changes in society. I think many of us feel we are futile individuals, incapable of changing the power structure. But it's not true." The summer culminated for Parks with the March on Washington in August 1963.

     Parks' course in life had been set. For the next decade it would be one of activism associated with civil rights, women's rights and the anti-war movements. After ordination as a Presbyterian minister he was called to a black church in York, Pa., 30 miles from the Mason-Dixon line. He helped that congregation merge back into the then-all-white First Presbyterian Church. On his first vacation from the church he traveled to Selma, Ala., to help Martin Luther King register voters and bring an end to poll taxes. "We had some people die there," Parks said. King himself ignored a death threat. He later asked Parks to help coordinate for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organizing Pennsylvanians for the March on Montgomery.

     Assigned by the Presbyterian Church to work with youth in Zambia, Parks was drawn to the efforts of exiles from South Africa, Rhodesia and Angola. For more than a year he lived among refugees and traveled across the Zambian border, "to serve as the eyes for the liberation struggles that were based in Zambia." He left only after being found out by the Rhodesians.

     Back in the states he became assistant minister to a church in the black ghetto on the south side of Chicago, working among the Blackstone Rangers until the tragedies of the street gangs (he buried 18 gang members) wore him down. His life would lead him to New York and work for the Children's Aid Society, and later to the anti-war movement where he and a dozen others offered counseling services from a coffeehouse near Ft. Bragg, where he says, "we were under the gun, literally." There were truth-seeking missions to Vietnam and Cuba along the way.

     Parks moved to California in the early '70s. His first marriage a casualty of the early days of the radical women's movement, he was looking for some stability. He learned the floral business, and in the next half dozen years built and sold two flower shops, met and married his second wife, Michelle, and still found time to drive medical supplies to the Indians who were encamped at Wounded Knee.

     By the early '80s the Parks had settled in Big Bear Lake and Doug was "looking for something meaningful to do with my life." He substituted as a teacher, liked it, and enrolled in education courses at Cal State's campus at the base of the mountains to earn his certification. For the past 13 years, he has been sharing his life's experiences with Big Bear's fifth graders.

     Before schools closed for the Martin Luther King holiday, Parks would run that assembly for the Big Bear School. And if circumstances dictate that students march on the principal's office to prevent painters from knocking down birds' nests, Parks has some experience to offer. He takes seriously his resonsibilities as educator, and his students score at the high end of standardized tests.

     The look in Doug Parks' eye, the energy and conviction in his voice, reveal his belief in the strength and worth of the individual. He says he does his best to live up to the name given him by his Native American friends: Shining Eagle.

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