by Peggy Chong
Ethel Ulysses Parker, Jr., E. U. to his friends, was a strong-voiced, determined, and kind human being, whom many people in the Federation had the privilege to know during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. He will long be remembered in the Federation for his strong, no-nonsense presence and the opportunities he helped to create. We know him as the founder of the preauthorized check plan, and his legacy lives on in the national scholarships awarded each year to blind students in his name and in the name of his wife Gene.
Yet, with all we know, very few of us really knew who he was outside the Federation. He spoke passionately on many subjects that were important to blind people during the time he was most active, and he was always in the forefront of promoting up-and-coming people he saw as having talent and energy that they could give to this cause we share.
I was fortunate to have had a chance to meet and talk with E. U. when I was younger. He graciously took the time to meet with me and other younger Federationists to get to know us. It was easy to feel comfortable with E. U. right off the bat; we felt like he was an interested grandfather, willing to listen to us despite our youth. He had a nice laugh and a gentle speaking voice in a small conversational group, but in a formal meeting, on the convention floor, or in legislative hearings, he had a strong, powerful, and persuasive voice and presence that left no doubt that he was a competent authority on the topic at hand. One of the first things E. U. told me about himself was what his initial stood for and how to say his name. Ethel was easy to pronounce, but Ulysses was to be pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable, and he made a point of saying that this was not to be pronounced the way that the former general and president of the United States pronounced his name.
I thought that researching this larger-than-life man would be an easy task. Everyone in my circle of friends knew him. But it turns out we did not really know him but knew only that we liked knowing him. He left a thin paper trail, and there was little on the internet from which I could draw.
Ethel Ulysses Parker, Jr. was born on March 18, 1922, in Bay Springs, Mississippi, to Ethel Ulysses and Lula Mae Parker. He was the middle of three surviving children born to the couple. Mr. Parker, Sr. and his wife ran a grocery store in Bay Springs and were the owners and operators of an icehouse business. They did well in their small community.
By the age of seven Ethel Jr. began to lose his eyesight. By the age of nine he was totally blind. Mr. and Mrs. Parker decided to send their son to the school for the blind in Jackson, Mississippi. Each Sunday his mother would drive her son more than sixty miles to Jackson, and every Friday she would drive him back to their home to spend the weekend with the family. This was during the depression of the 30s when family incomes were tight, and such a drive represented a significant cost in gas, not to mention wear and tear on the car. It was hard for Lula Mae to send her son away to school, but she knew this was important for him if he was to succeed in life.
At the school for the blind E. U. did well as a student and was active in his school’s Boy Scout troop. After graduation he attended Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi in Oxford. It is doubtful that any financial assistance for E. U. was granted by his state agency for the blind, but he pursued a higher education anyway. One must assume that a significant amount of financial support was given by his parents. His older sister Doris also attended college and graduated from Ole Miss, showing the commitment to education held by the family.
Again his mother would pick him up on many weekends and bring him back to school on Sunday evenings. He left Ole Miss in his senior year without finishing. This was late in the Second World War, many men were off fighting in the military, and women had joined the workforce. E. U. found it harder to recruit readers at the school, and this made it difficult for him to keep up with his classwork. When he left school, he still needed a career to support himself, so he decided to go to San Antonio, Texas, where he attended chiropractic school.
On completing this part of his education, he was encouraged by his parents to come back to Bay Springs and open his chiropractic business, even though there was an established chiropractor already in this small town. His brother-in-law and best friend, Joe, was off fighting in the military during World War II, leaving an empty house in Bay Springs. E. U. moved into the vacant house and set up his practice. Business was good, so he hired a secretary, Miss Imogene Price (known to many of us as Gene) a girl five years his junior. It was her job to take care of the growing paperwork and to manage other office duties while he was seeing patients. He must have found more than just her work satisfactory, because he married Miss Price on November 30, 1945, just after her eighteenth birthday. The couple had three daughters: Dixie, Teresa, and Genie.
After eight years as a chiropractor, E. U. wanted to change careers and became a State Farm insurance agent in Bay Springs. Soon after, the family moved their business to Laurel, Mississippi, a town on a major highway, which benefited business significantly. With E. U.’s personality and perseverance, he became one of the first seven State Farm agents in the state of Mississippi and was soon regarded as one of their top agents. Like all new businessmen, he needed to establish himself. This meant going door-to-door to sell insurance. Again Gene helped out with the paperwork, acting as his office manager and reader. Keep in mind she was doing this at the same time she was raising their children.
E. U. often hired high school students to work for him as drivers when he made his calls. It is a credit to his investment in young people and his judgment in hiring that two of the young men who drove for him stayed on after high school to become part of his staff. One retired from the business after working there for twenty-five years. A State Farm agent is an independent contractor with his own office. Over the years E. U. hired additional staff to work in his business. As his business grew, he spent less and less time going door-to-door and relied more on traffic coming to his office.
As an ambitious agent E. U. did everything he could to promote himself, even if it cost him a bit of money. One promotional item he had tailored for his firm was a tin box to hold valuable documents such as one’s State Farm policy. He gave one to each of his customers and was generous enough to give them to most people in the community. Such a box was useful, not only for retaining personal possessions, but as a way of keeping his name in front of the families who were or could potentially be his customers. As was the custom in those days, he also had ashtrays made for his State Farm business customers, along with pens, calendars, and other traditional giveaways, which he changed each year.
Each morning advertisements for E. U.’s insurance agency would air on the local radio station about 7 AM, and, when his youngest daughter would get up for school, one of the first things she would hear on the radio was her father’s commercials. She remembers this fondly and says that it shows just how much her father did everything he could to promote his business.
But in the Parker family it was not all work and no play for this energetic agent. Family was important to him and Gene. When their daughter Dixie was still small, the Parkers would go out to the lake nearby to picnic and swim. Gene was not a swimmer, so E. U. would take their young daughter and lead her into the lake. As Dixie grew older and the other children came along, he continued to swim with the girls. Even with the assumption on the part of the public that the children of blind parents are the real caretakers—one that is frequently communicated to their offspring--she notes with pride that, when E. U. came along, she never felt that she was the one leading or watching out for her blind father or her siblings. Along with a good sense of direction and confidence in himself, he was definitely “daddy in charge.”
One of the many responsibilities E. U. took on as a State Farm agent was to host an annual picnic for agents in Mississippi. They would come to Laurel and stay at local hotels, and the Parkers would host a big cookout at their home. This was usually followed by a swim party at one of the establishments they had taken over for the Fourth of July weekend. Later in life, when the doctor told E. U. that he needed to get more exercise, it was his love of swimming that found him putting a swimming pool in his backyard.
Becoming active in the community was also important to the couple. Knowing the movers and shakers in the community was important if E. U. was to bring in new business. Since he considered scouting to be a formative part of his childhood, he became active in the Boy Scouts, even though his three children were girls. He believed in the program and actively worked to help it raise money. He also made himself available whenever asked to do volunteer work for the organization and was honored with the Silver Beaver award for his participation and exceptional character. E. U. was also an active member of the Rotary Club of Laurel, Mississippi, serving for a time as its president.
In the late 1960s this outgoing man ran for the Mississippi State Senate. He spoke at many clubs and rallies while campaigning. Dixie, his oldest daughter, drove him to many of these and says that she learned a great deal about her dad by listening to him speak. On their many trips to Jackson, the state capital, E. U. would direct his daughter and other drivers around the city, since he knew it much better than they did. E. U. did not win a seat in the Mississippi State Senate, but he did a great deal to raise the visibility of blind people in the state and to redefine for many of them what blind people could aspire to do.
In the early 1970s E. U. learned about the National Federation of the Blind and attended the annual national convention held in Houston, Texas, in 1971. At that convention he was so impressed with the spirit and activism of the organization that he decided he wanted to bring the Federation to Mississippi. As usual E. U. jumped in with both feet and became one of its most active leaders and members. He helped organize the new affiliate, trying to get names out of the state agency for the blind in order to offer them the opportunity to join fellow Mississippians in improving conditions there but to no avail. At that time the agency was closely allied with the American Council of the Blind, and at times agency officials were cold and hostile to the creation of a Federation affiliate in that state. In the early 70s employment opportunities for the blind were quite limited. There was a sheltered workshop, Mississippi Industries for the Blind, and, while it paid better wages than some shops around the country, not much opportunity existed for advancement. The state ran a vending program for the blind, but most of its facilities were limited to the selling of snacks and soda. It was E. U.’s dream that bringing the National Federation of the Blind to Mississippi would serve to increase the opportunities blind people would have for other jobs and thereby increase their chances of making a good living.
With or without the support of the rehabilitation agency, he and other blind friends went about making their lists—friends telling friends, churches referring fellow church members, local clubs talking about the blind they had helped. Leaders from other states arrived just after the new year in 1972. They, along with others from Mississippi, began calling on people across the state. All told, a team of members from eleven states arrived in Jackson to work those lists and build new ones. On January 15, 1972, a meeting was held at the Downtowner Motor Inn in Jackson to organize the affiliate. President Kenneth Jernigan and board member Don Capps were on hand to meet, greet, and get to know the more than seventy Mississippians who came to learn about the National Federation of the Blind.
During the week of the organizing two of the team members were refused accommodations at the Ole Miss Hotel in Oxford. The refusal to accommodate them was based on the fact that they would have no sighted person to accompany them, that the hotel had steps to get to and from sleeping rooms, and that the hotel had no restaurant on-site and would not be responsible for their safety when they traveled the streets of Jackson to find nearby restaurants. Tackling this issue was the first goal on the new organization's agenda, and that day they voted to take to the Mississippi legislature the Model White Cane Law that would allow blind people the same rights to public places and accommodations enjoyed by those with sight.
At that first meeting E. U. was elected as the first vice president and continued to serve on the state board in many capacities over the next quarter century. For a time he was the Mississippi affiliate's president, and for many years he was elected to serve as the official delegate to the national convention of the National Federation of the Blind.
It didn’t take long for E. U. to be recognized as a national leader. Soon he was serving on the board of directors of the Jacobus tenBroek Memorial Fund and was invited to attend the National Federation of the Blind’s board of directors meeting held over the Thanksgiving holiday. Gene came along with him, and all who partook of the Thanksgiving meal realized she was a great cook and remembered with fondness her corn casserole and the seasoned oyster crackers she brought to share.
Through the years many Federationists had the pleasure of staying at the home of Gene and E. U. Gene was every bit as committed to the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind as her husband, and it is encouraging to see this kind of commitment in a person who is sighted.
In the fall of 1974 E. U. approached the Federation with a fundraising opportunity that he thought could raise a lot of money for the organization. The State Farm insurance company had begun collecting payments for insurance premiums through fund transfers that assured that payments would be on time and trouble free. E. U. believed that we could do this organizationally, and all of us are familiar with the PAC plan. Though its name has changed and the options for doing those funds transfers have increased, the concept is the same, and it continues to bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organization each year.
This successful businessman and community activist made significant contributions to the organization through his work on the Resolutions Committee, and, when the Federation decided to establish a low interest loan program for adaptive technology, E. U. was one of the first three committee members to serve. As a businessman he observed that banks and credit unions were reluctant to make loans for specialized equipment because the collateral that equipment would represent would be harder for them to sell than cars, boats, houses, and more traditional items. One of the benefits of this program was not just that it made money available but that it also offered expertise about the kind of technology that would be most useful for the client who was applying for the loan. Although some of the new technology was foreign to E. U., he was certainly comfortable using the technology of his day, and his family remembers how he made it a habit to tape-record family discussions with his girls or catch them singing at unexpected moments. These recordings were his way of remembering, the role that pictures play in the lives of so many who can see.
E. U.’s involvement in organizations extended well beyond the National Federation of the Blind. He served on the Mississippi public welfare board, and he and Gene were one of thirteen family members who founded the Franklin United Methodist Church in the 1950s. At first the congregation met in a tent, but E. U. and Gene helped to raise money for a building and eventually a second building that was used as a youth center. For years E. U. served as a trustee of the church.
E. U. loved history. The Civil War was his passion, and he read extensively on the subject and had many cassettes filled with Civil War music.
With advancing age he developed significant back trouble. Even after surgery his pain was so severe that he could not climb steps. At times he used a wheelchair to navigate large buildings and packed convention halls. But his physical problems didn’t retard his intellectual curiosity and his determination to remain involved in the things that were so much a part of his life’s work. He continued to hire a reader who would come to his home each day to read the Wall Street Journal, weekly and monthly print magazines, and of course the daily mail. Sadly, E. U. did not live long enough to benefit from the NFB-NEWSLINE service that the PAC plan money he helped to bring to the organization played such a significant part in financing.
E. U. died on April 7, 1996, in Laurel, Mississippi. His wife lived until December 30, 2012. Evidencing her strong commitment to the advancement of blind people, for many years after her husband’s death Gene remained an active member, attending national conventions until 2008. Gene and E. U. are buried in Bay Springs, but they continue to live in the hearts of those who love them, in the statutes of the state of Mississippi, and in the history of the blind and our movement toward first-class citizenship.
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