John Parish, dean of Tennessee journalism

That’s John in the foreground, preparing to take a picture at The Jackson Sun reunion of 2005.

Today, my friend Kevin Dietrich brought this obit to my attention:

Mr. John M. Parish, age 87, retired newsman and former press secretary to Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, died December 10, 2010….

I had not read it, but I must have received a telepathic message of some sort. Because one day this past week, for no reason, I thought of this unfinished blog post from June 28, 2007. I had started writing it after reading that David Broder piece that it mentions at the start. Then after typing away for awhile, I got sidetracked and never finished it.

But for some reason the other day, I got to thinking about John Parish. And I thought, one of these days I’ll finish it. I had no idea as I thought that that “the Bear” was already gone.

Here’s my belated remembrance of John Parish. Tennessee journalism is unlikely to see his like again…

David Broder’s column on today’s op-ed page begins with this thought:

Years ago, Lamar Alexander, the senator from Tennessee, told me of a lesson he had learned as a young man on the White House staff: It is always useful for the president to have at least one aide who has had a successful career already, who does not need the job, and therefore can offer candid advice. When he was governor of Tennessee, Alexander made sure he had such a man on his staff.

That brought back the memories, even more than seeing fellow Memphis State grad Fred Thompson yesterday.

The man on Gov. Lamar Alexander’s staff who best fits that description is John “The Bear” Parish, who became the new governor’s press secretary in January 1979, after having long established himself as the Dean of Tennessee political journalism. It was a very unusual appointment, since new governors seldom turn to such people. (Although Mark Sanford did in picking Fred Carter as his chief of staff. Mr. Carter left the office early in the Sanford administration to return to his job as president of Francis Marion University in Florence. Just as well, since as near as I could tell the governor wouldn’t listen to him anyway.)

Unlike Lee Bandy, John did not work for the state’s largest newspaper. He wrote for The Jackson Sun. The photograph above is from a 2005 reunion of folks who worked at that paper when I was there, from 1975-85. John is stepping forward to take a picture on his own camera. (That’s me in the striped shirt just over his shoulder. To my left is Richard Crowson, now editorial cartoonist with The Wichita Eagle. [But, since I wrote this, laid off like me.] On the other side of Richard is Mark Humphrey, the photographer who took the shot of me at the bottom of this post back when we were covering the Iowa Caucuses in 1980, and who is now with The Associated Press in Nashville. To my right is Bob Lewis, the former center for the Ole Miss football team who is now with the AP in Richmond. Of course, I could tell a story about each person in the picture, but what do you care, right? Well, it’s my blog, so I’ll wax nostalgic if I choose.)

John was a legend, a uniquely gifted, hard-working journalist who made a big impression on me at an early point in my own career. Frankly, I have never seen his like since. A few points from the rich mine of Parish lore:

  • He got his nickname, “The Bear,” from his days as The Sun‘s city editor, which predates me by a year or two. Office scuttlebutt was that John had been a bit too gruff to all the newbies hired right out of the University of Missouri’s excellent journalism program shortly after the Des Moines Register Co. bought the paper in the early ’70s. By the time I was there, he had definitely found his niche as the associate editor at the newspaper, and the paper was making the most of his exhaustive knowledge of state politics.
  • He wrote four or five news stories in the course of a typical day, plus — and this is the amazing thing — a daily political column on the editorial page.
  • Despite that volume of copy, he never made mistakes. I’m not talking about not having to run a correction in the paper. His copy was the cleanest I’ve ever seen. And in those days, nobody had clean copy. We’re talking IBM Selectric typewriters, not word processors. Not one strikeout or correction. After the first couple of times I read (I had joined the paper as a copy editor) raw copy from John, I asked someone whether he wrote rough drafts first. No. And there was no way he could have, producing a volume like that.
  • He couldn’t type, at least not in the way it’s taught at school. He produced all of that copy hunting and pecking, at blinding speed. It sounded like a machine gun coming from his office (John was the only person in the newsroom who had an office other than the executive editor and managing editor).
  • Sen. Thompson made a passing reference Wednesday to the case that launched his screen career — he represented a whistle-blower who helped bring down the fabulously corrupt Gov. Ray Blanton. But before, during and after that incident, the bane of the Blanton administration was John Parish. Day after day, outrage after outrage, John documented the governor’s gross abuse of power.
  • John’s wife worked for a state agency. The governor went after her to get even with John. He didn’t fire her; he transferred her job to the other end of the state. Her new commute would have been a little less than Tennessee’s full 450-mile length, but not by all that much. So she had to resign. But that didn’t stop John. Nothing stopped John.
  • In 1978, I was working in The Sun‘s Gibson County Bureau — quite a responsibility for a kid three years out of school. I covered everything that happened in several counties, including the one where The Sun had its second-highest circulation, by myself. (Well, actually, I had a secretary, which was my first taste of management.) But what I really wanted to do was cover state politics. That year I got my first chance to do that. Because of John and the high standard he set, the paper — small as it was — covered politics in a big way. The last month of the general election, we had a reporter full-time with each of the gubernatorial (and if I’m remembering correctly, U.S. senatorial) candidates. John no doubt would have preferred to be in four places at once, but since he couldn’t, that meant a big opportunity for me and a couple of other junior people. “Full-time” coverage, by the way, means traveling with them on the plane, in the car, eating meals with them — a kind of up-close-and-personal man-to-man coverage that is unimaginable today (papers don’t spend the money, and candidates don’t let the press that close). 20 hour days, because after the candidates were done, we had to write. Calling in stories and updates to stories from the road (in those days before laptops, we dictated). I spent a week each with Alexander and Jake Butcher, and I learned a great deal. The height of the experience came when John praised one of the stories I wrote from that time (and it WAS a good one).
  • Another point that year, I finagled the chance to help John cover the Democratic Mid-Term National Convention in Memphis. A conversation we had during that has stuck with me. I mentioned that some of our colleagues were in Nashville that weekend to pick up their awards at the annual state press association convention. I may have expressed my disappointment that I couldn’t be there (although I definitely preferred being at the Memphis event, working). John harrumphed. I asked what was wrong. He said he had no use for such awards, or the approval of other journalists. He only cared about the approval of the readers, and the best award they could give him was to buy the paper and read what he wrote with interest. It amuses me now to think how shocked I was at the time at this attitude. Readers? What did readers know? They weren’t professional journalists! They didn’t know what made a story good! (Mind you, I was not long out of journalism school, which fosters such silly, insular notions.) This was the first time I ever distrusted John’s judgment. But of course, he was completely and absolutely right.
  • Of course, Lamar Alexander won that gubernatorial election we had been covering. At Christmastime of that year, I brought my family to South Carolina for the holidays. When I got back, I got a call from my editor, who told me the stunning news — John Parish was leaving journalism to be Alexander’s press secretary. It was a really unusual move for someone of his advanced skill, experience and stature. I don’t remember ever hearing John explaining in my hearing why he made this move. But I guess he wanted to make a difference, and actually help run government instead of just writing about it. Whatever the reason, I immediately spoke up — I wanted the job covering Nashville for the paper. My editor said, “I sort of thought you would.” So I took my shot, went through the interviews. But… I didn’t get it. It went to Jeff Wilson instead (who was about the only person at the paper who maybe wanted it more than I did). Fortunately, my stock was high enough with our executive editor that he did an extraordinary thing, rather than lose me: He created a special position for me. He brought me in from the bureau and basically told me to go out and write about whatever I wanted to. I was my own assigning editor, and went covered every special assignment that interested me, from Tennessee to the Iowa Caucuses at the end of 1979. That was during the week. On Saturdays I became the editor in charge of the paper. This led to my giving up reporting for good and becoming the paper’s news editor (what most papers would call a metro editor, the editor supervising all the news reporters) the following year.

That editor gig worked out well, there and at two other papers, until The State decided it didn’t need me any more last year. In the last years, especially after Lee Bandy retired, I got to thinking that I was finally getting there, I was finally on the verge of becoming that gray eminence that would make me to SC politics what John Parish was to Tennessee’s. But that was wishful thinking. I never came close to being John Parish. No one could.

Another shot from the reunion. John, at right, is chatting with Kevin Barnard of The Tampa Tribune and Mark Humphrey. Mary Reed and Joel Wood are in the background.

6 thoughts on “John Parish, dean of Tennessee journalism

  1. Hunter Brumfield

    Good piece. He could also put out the paper practically by himself with several dozen stores written during area elections. I watched him in awe as he recalled vote percentages from previous elections totally from memory.

    Of everything that amazed me is that he would fill his “three take” (pages) column down to the last line without fail, and as I recall, to the last of that line.

    But you are wrong. There WERE problems with his copy. He was so fast with his two-finger typing that sometimes the Selectric ball would not whip around fast enough and it would only show a partial printing of the next character. Not his fault, but that of what was the most-advanced typesetting front end in the state of Tennessee at the time.

    We tried him on several machines but that turned out to be universal.

    Like you, I will miss John badly.

    He made it all look easy.

  2. Brad

    I must bow to Hunter’s superior knowledge. Folks, Hunter was The Sun’s editorial page editor back in the day, and as we know, EPEs know all…


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