Friends, foes say prominent Dem Gerri Parr was a unifier
Even her political enemies have good things to say about Gerrie Parr, the former Champaign County auditor and Democratic Party chief who died last week at the age of 63.
"Gerrie played tough but she played fair," said Mark Shelden, the Republican Champaign County clerk. "We had some battles, like you would expect that Republicans and Democrats would, but there was never a cheap shot from Gerrie Parr."
In 1995, Shelden ran for the Champaign City Council but was removed from the ballot when Parr, then the county Democratic chair, challenged his nomination papers because he had failed to file on time a statement of economic interest.
"I screwed up," Shelden recalled Tuesday. "I don't fault anybody but myself. Gerrie was just playing by the rules."
Her friends and Democratic Party colleagues said that Parr was an avid Democrat, but was respectful and civil to the opposition, both inside the party and outside of it.
"I adored Gerrie Parr," said Tom Betz, a longtime Democratic member of the Champaign County Board. "Gerrie Parr always tried to bring people together. She was a unifier."
He recalled attending a social gathering of Democrats where various factions of the party were in three separate areas. Parr moved among the splintered groups with ease.
"Gerrie could always walk among the three factions and get everyone calm," he said. "You will not find many people who did not love Gerrie Parr."
"She was such a nice person," agreed Esther Patt, a former Urbana City Council member and a longtime friend of Parr's. "That was one of the things that helped her be a unifier. She did not have this history of fights or conflicts with other people. She was a nice person, and people liked her and that's why she was so effective."
Tony Fabri, who also served as a Democratic Party chair and currently is the county auditor, recalled that Parr didn't want to hear Democrats bad-mouthing other Democrats.
"She didn't want people to sit around gossiping and hearing Democrats say bad things about other Democrats," Fabri said. "But she was tough as nails when she was county auditor. The county board once cut her stationery budget because they didn't like some of the things she was printing."
John Piland, once a Republican state's attorney, was a favorite foil of Parr's. On one occasion, she embarrassed the state's attorney after Piland submitted a request to have the county pay his wife's airfare to a conference they both attended.
In another incident, Piland negotiated a deal with a bar owner who had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of keeping a place of prostitution. Originally the man had been charged with a felony offense. In the deal, the bar owner agreed to contribute $5,000 to the county's general fund to defray the cost of the police investigation of the tavern.
"Gerrie took the check to the county board and said something like, 'What do I do with this? I have no line item for shakedowns,'" Fabri said.
But her friends mostly remember Parr as a hard-working Democrat, a great cook and a gracious hostess.
"Even when she was party chair, she was always so helpful to so many candidates," Patt said. "I think she was the best chair this party ever had. I don't say that to slight anyone else but she was so helpful and organized.
"She did the work. That's the important thing," she said. "In all walks of life, there are people who are interested in leadership for their own egos rather than for a common goal. Gerrie was just the opposite of that."
Betz recalled a time when Parr baked cookies in his kitchen for a large group of Democrats who were addressing campaign mailings. Current party Chairman Al Klein said Parr taught him the importance of serving salmon as a dinner entree because it was a sort of a compromise, not meat but a substantial seafood that could be prepared many ways.
Parr's daughter, Dani Schooley, recalled a luncheon her mother hosted at their Champaign home for Michelle Obama when Barack Obama was running for the U.S. Senate. And Lillian Cade, who was a Democratic Party chair before Parr (and who called her "innately elegant"), remembered Parr making "huge pots of spaghetti. I would marvel. She would take on such big assignments, give them to herself and then manage them. And she was such a slight person."
"She was a wonderful cook," agreed Betz. "She could cook the most beautiful meals that she would throw together in just an hour or so."
"She loved to entertain," Fabri said. "She did a Halloween costume party every year. She was just so energetic and enthusiastic about everything she did."
Especially about being a Democrat, he said.
"Gerrie said that partisanship was a good thing and that party politics matters," Fabri said. "There is nothing wrong, she said, with people working together for a shared, party goal."
Gerrie Parr died Friday in Waukegan, at her sister's home, after a battle with cancer that began in early 2005. A memorial service will be held Thursday at St. Pat's New Church in Wadsworth. A second memorial service will be scheduled in Champaign-Urbana, probably next month, her daughter Dani said Tuesday.
In recent years, she said her mother got to travel, taking tours to China and Peru, went sailing in Tahiti and even took a trip in late December to Egypt and Jordan with her sister, Linda Altman.
"I think she enjoyed the adventure of traveling on her own, and she liked to meet people. That's the way she was," said Schooley, who lives in Chicago.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 351-5221.