Afflicted with rheumatic fever, Sallie Parks spent months of her childhood confined to her bed.
Later on, Parks would almost never bring up this period, even to her family. But once, on a long car ride with her daughter-in-law, she suggested those housebound months had set the frame for the rest of her life:
“She said she vowed at that time, she said she was going to squeeze every minute out of life,” Parks’s son, Steve Parks, said.
Parks never lacked for something to do.
As a two-term Pinellas County commissioner, her efforts ranged from making the board more accessible to navigating the era’s “water wars.” She was the founding director of the Pinellas County Arts Council and presided over the Pinellas Community Foundation, 211 Tampa Bay Cares and numerous other groups — her son estimated that she sat on as many as 30 boards at once. She pushed to bring the Silver Alert program to Florida.
She also visited 70 countries. She taught English to adults in Japan. In her last years, she rented out part of her Palm Harbor home through Airbnb — not because she needed the money, but because she loved meeting new people.
Sallie Parks died Nov. 9. She was 86. The cause was cancer, her son said. A public celebration of life is set for 2 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Dunedin Fine Arts Center.
Parks grew up in Detroit and came to Florida after getting a master’s degree in English from Michigan State University.
Steve Parks described a childhood in which his mother was omnipresent: She went to every ballgame, made dinner every night, volunteered at the kids’ school. When Steve and his sister were in second and third grade, their parents took them on a six-month trip across the country, with stops in 35 states.
As the kids grew up, Parks threw herself into public service. When the Arts Council was established in 1976, as another volunteer wrote in a 2010 letter to the St. Petersburg Times, Parks “led the early council and worked for no pay until she learned the grants process.”
By the early 1990s, she’d had public office on her mind for 20 years. She once recalled considering a run for school board in the 1970s.
“It was a time that the (Republican) Party wasn’t as inclusive for women as it is now,” she told a reporter. “They said, ‘Girly, go home and take care of your house.’”
Parks ran for county commission in 1992, against John Chesnut Jr., a commissioner who’d been in office 16 years. The commission was widely considered stagnant, hostile to outsiders and inaccessible to residents. Parks, a Republican, secured union and newspaper endorsements. When Chesnut mailed out attack ads, Parks responded by hand-delivering 8,000 copies of her own campaign literature.
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Privately, Parks was rattled. “I don’t know if I can do this,” she told her son — not that she wasn’t capable, but that she couldn’t win. It’s the only time he can remember her feeling not in control of a situation.
Publicly, the triumphant campaign exposed the public to Parks as she would become known: curious and persistently kind, and school-teacher firm.
“She was pleasant, but if she called you up and said, ‘Steve, I’d really like you to do blank,’” said Steve Seibert, a fellow county commissioner, “it was like, ‘Yes ma’am, I sure will.’ No one would say no to her.”
At her first meeting, she noticed both the private bathrooms for commissioners said “men.” She told Chuck Rainey, the powerful commission chair, that he needed to fix it, Seibert recalled.
“The next day, she said, ‘Commissioner Rainey, thank you for doing that so quickly. Now let’s talk about the wallpaper,’” Seibert said.
Parks took citizen commenters seriously. She also got commissioners to agree to televise all their meetings, Seibert said, not just the one per month they’d previously broadcast.
Seibert has been credited as one of the leading negotiators in the era’s “water wars,” a years-long battle over Pinellas’s reliance on pumping groundwater from other counties. But he said Parks “was there every step of the way, and she may have gotten there before I did. She was very involved in helping to broker the Tampa Bay Water deal” that ended the conflict by creating a new regional water utility.
Parks had promised she’d serve only eight years on the commission. She could not sit still, though. She spent three years as a lobbyist for St. Petersburg College. She sat on the boards of charities such as the Pinellas Community Foundation, which distributes millions of dollars to local nonprofits, and of entities including the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
In 2008, a Largo woman with dementia left her assisted-living home and drowned after driving into the Intracoastal Waterway. A group of locals looked to set up a Silver Alert pilot program, in which the public is notified about missing seniors, and Parks went to then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who signed an executive order establishing the program statewide. More than 3,000 alerts have gone out in the 14 years since then, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and have been directly responsible for finding nearly 300 missing seniors.
“When she learned she had cancer five years ago, I figured, oh my god, we need to be at my mom’s side,” Steve Parks said. “She said, ‘I’m not going to let this get me.’ She signed up for more boards. She traveled more. She wasn’t going to lay down.”
A few months before her death, Parks took one last trip, to Switzerland. She described it to the friends who visited her in hospice care: how she’d had a great day after befriending a group of strangers on a boat on Lake Geneva, how fulfilling she’d found traveling solo.
“She said, ‘I kind of like myself,’” said Karen Seel, another fellow commissioner-turned-friend. “‘I’m glad I did that journey, because I found out I can do it by myself and respect myself and love myself.’”
She dictated her own obituary and set the program for her celebration of life. She made sure her beloved cat, Sophia Loren, was in good hands. At the end, her family filled her room for a pizza party, to say goodbye, “and after that, it was almost as though she willed herself to pass,” Steve Parks said. “She really went out on her own terms.”
One last story. The last time Seibert saw Parks, she told him she needed to apologize.
“I made fun of your white papers,” she told him.
This was a habit Seibert had during those years on the County Commission. When he wanted to sway someone, he wrote a few pages explaining his thinking.
“I never thought you really wrote your papers to convince anybody except yourself,” Parks continued.
Seibert was startled. Not because he was offended — the opposite. He had only realized in the past few months, while returning to writing, that the point of all those papers had really been to clarify his own thoughts. But she had seen it 30 years ago, something even he didn’t know about himself, and held onto it for all this time, and she wanted to give it back before she had to go.
“I think she was still thinking about other people,” Seibert said. “My experience was that at the end, she was still trying to teach me something that she thought was important to tell me.”