George A. Parks

George A. Parks

One of my late brother’s hobbies during recent years was to buy unusual news photographs made available when newspapers put their collections of old shots up for sale.

One of the photos that Terrence, a retired University of Alaska Fairbanks history professor purchased for a small fee, is this haunting image that looks like a film noir movie still from the 1930s to promote a gangster film. He bought photos like this because he saw historical value in them and believed they should be preserved.

I came across this photo and others while sifting through the large collection of books, files, notes, reports and other artifacts of my twin brother’s life as a professional historian. My brother died in December and this will take me some time.

The subject of the photo is 49-year-old George A. Parks, who was on his way by train to Washington, D.C., when a photographer for the Daily Illustrated Times lit him up in Chicago’s Union Station at 9 a.m. on Nov. 15, 1932. Parks was the territorial governor of Alaska at the time, supervising a staff of three.

He had just gotten off the North Coast Limited from Seattle and had several hours to kill before boarding the Liberty Limited for Washington, D.C. It’s a great picture of Parks, who was close to finishing his second four-year term when this appeared in the sheet that called itself “Chicago’s Picture Newspaper.”

Parks had been appointed by Calvin Coolidge and reappointed by Herbert Hoover. The governor was on his way to give his last annual report to the secretary of Interior, following the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Parks, the man for whom the Parks Highway is named, was a surveyor and engineer who had come to Alaska in 1907. He stayed in Alaska after his days as territorial governor ended, working in Juneau. He was known all across the territory.

He had seen Warren G. Harding drive the Golden Spike for the Alaska Railroad and he flew with the likes of Noel Wien.

I interviewed him once in 1982 to get his take on the governor’s race that year. He said he was backing Bill Sheffield, and it was the first time he voted Democratic in many years. Talking to Parks on the phone was difficult because as a 99-year-old he refused to use a device to help him hear the person on the other end of the line.

The following year, for his 100th birthday, reporter David Ramseur interviewed Parks in person at Bartlett Memorial Hospital.

“Nurse! Nurse!” he hollered. “Where’s my pipe?”

Thus summoned, the nurse appeared and located one of his many pipes, loaded it with tobacco and lit it for him.

“I smoke a pipe whenever I can get anyone to light it for me,” he told Ramseur, adding that he had started smoking in 1919.

Parks had three employees under him as territorial governor and he didn’t remember much about the job that made it enjoyable. “There were no parties. I’m not married. You can’t have a party without a wife.”

It would have been interesting to ask Parks at 100 about the man in the photo, half his age, who was walking though the Chicago train station, planning to catch the eastbound express.

In 1978, when the Parks Highway was dedicated to Parks, he was represented at the ceremony by his friend, Sen. John Butrovich, one of Alaska’s greatest legislators. At the event, Butrovich closed his comments with lines from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “And if I should live to be, the last leaf upon the tree. In the spring, let them smile, as I do now, at the old forsaken bough, where I cling.”

Dermot Cole, a longtime columnist and reporter from Fairbanks, writes about Alaska politics and other topics on his blog Reporting From Alaska, which can be found at www.dermotcole.com.

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