URBANA – During his first run at politics in 1995, state Sen. Mike Frerichs kept seeing the same guy at nearly every event on the campaign trail.
Having just moved back to Champaign County, Frerichs didn't know who it was but assumed he was another candidate.
Turns out it was Tracy Parsons, then-president of the Urban League of Champaign County, whose community involvement is legendary.
Frerichs and others honored Parsons, who stepped down last month, at the Urban League's annual gala Friday night. They praised his work to empower the disenfranchised and develop programs to train people for work, help families buy their first homes, provide child-care for working parents, find jobs for ex-felons and provide quality education to children of all backgrounds.
"We can never thank you for all you have done, and will do," said Urban League board member Lorraine Cowan. She presented Parsons with a plaque calling him the "heart and soul" of the Urban League for the past 13 years, adding, "you still are."
Other tributes and proclamations came from Champaign-Urbana's mayors, school officials and politicians, the United Way of Champaign County and the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois.
A United Way tribute noted the Urban League's five-fold growth under Parsons' leadership, saying he "helped countless adults get their lives back on track and move forward."
Carol and Aaron Ammons of Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice said they learned a great deal from Parsons about advocacy work, but they also bought their first home through the Urban League's housing program.
"We are the face of the people who have been helped through that program," Carol Ammons said.
Former Champaign City Council member Giraldo Rosales thanked Parsons for reaching out to the Latino community and cited his work on police-community relations, Section 8 housing and educational equity. Whenever there was a problem, Rosales said, "we went to Tracy. We are going to miss him greatly."
Champaign City Manager Steve Carter said he worked with Parsons on a number of problems that cropped up over the years, calling him a "terrific advocate."
"I wish we could say they're all solved, but they're not," Carter said. "Tracy is one of the most trustworthy people I've ever worked with. He's one of those people you can shake hands with and walk away and you know his word is what he's followed through with."
Mike Ross, director of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, said some people resist change, others hope for change but don't pursue it, and still others speak loudly for change without accomplishing much.
In between are people with "the dedication to work patiently and quietly and persuasively to bring a lot of people together to promote change. I can't think of anyone in the community that's worked more inspirationally in that way than Tracy."
Parsons said the surprise tribute left him "speechless" – then closed with an impromptu speech on the importance of the Urban League's work to the community.
The Urban League is about people – all people, he said, noting the black, white, Latino and Asian-American faces in the crowd. Champaign-Urbana has a chance to become a model city, he said, but can't if "only a small part of the community is growing."
"We don't thrive as a community until those folks who are struggling are thriving, too," Parsons said. "Most people just need that hand up that we all had."
Surrounded by his parents, Lamonte and Edna Parsons, his wife, Martha, and his three children (Camille, 16, and twins Grant and Gabby, 15), Parsons said family was his "foundation."
He credited his staff and Urban League volunteers for the programs created under his leadership.
"I was the figurehead. I get the credit," he said, adding, "The last couple of years, I've gotten the blame, too."
Parsons, a Northwestern alumnus and former salesman, was working for a Chicago jobs program when he was approached about the Urban League job during a stop here. He and his wife had just bought a new house in Evanston, and "I didn't think about coming back here."
Six months later, he was hooked.
"It was really about giving back to the community," he said. Growing up, he said, "I was fortunate to have so many people helping me. So many kids don't have that."