A Short and Stubby Giant of a Man

Not too long ago a friend asked me why a man like Joe Biden would willingly take on the job of President of the United States. “This guy,” he said, “knew the risks and the pressures better than anyone. He knew that no matter what he did the chorus of doubters would outshout his supporters.

“Why would a person strive for a position in which successes will be ignored, diminished or ridiculed, and inevitable mistakes will be broadcast with vitriol, cynicism and even glee. Is it ego?  Is it some kind of personality disorder? What drives a person to stand on a stage where every word and every action will be analyzed and critiqued in the public square. Every evening newscast and every morning paper will be headlined with your missteps, and maybe your successes will be mentioned at the bottom page 25.”

I answered by telling him my story. When I served as a cabinet officer in Governor Bruce Babbitt’s Arizona administration, I was under constant observation by members of the Capitol media; and, as a person who had responsibility for the state’s largest agency, I was a frequent target for Republicans who were seeking to discredit my boss. I worked long hours that too often included facing off with my opposition in legislative hearings or in public forums.

Thousands of Reasons

There were literally thousands of reasons I did it: the people who were able to support their families through our welfare and food programs; or those who survived on unemployment compensation; or those who needed training and help finding employment through Vocational Rehabilitation and employment services; or the vulnerable in group homes for the developmentally disabled, and children who were abused or neglected.

Yes, it was at times very frustrating. But I was prepared for that job by an extraordinary man who invested hours and energy into equipping me for what he saw as my calling. So today, 25 years since I last saw him before his 1996 death, I offer these words as a testimony to how the power of one good person can empower others to serve thousands.

Jim Parham was a short stubby guy, but was a giant of a man. He grew up in a welfare household located in a company-owned cotton mill neighborhood in Atlanta. Jim found his way through his participation in the Boys Club—particularly as a boxer. He went on to earn his college degree and later serve as director of Georgia’s Department of Family and Children and then as commissioner of its successor, the Department of Human Resources. He later served as a special assistant to President Jimmy Carter, and ended his career as a professor of social welfare at the University of Georgia. His personal papers are catalogued in the Carter Center.

I met Jim when I took my first step into the political world as assistant to the Commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Human Resources and Secretary to the agency’s board during Carter’s gubernatorial administration.  In many ways, during our work together in Georgia and Washington, DC, Jim became a titan in my life––as a boss, a mentor and a friend. No matter how busy he was, no matter how much pressure he was under, he always took the time to ensure that I was digesting the lessons of the moment.

Our Conversations

We spent hours together talking and analyzing what went right and what went wrong in our approach to controversial issues. These conversations usually started with Jim asking my opinion, and then gently moving me from my initial recounting of the day’s facts and figures into a deeper analysis of the issue: how did we approach it, what worked and why, what didn’t work and why. Much of the success in my later career can be traced back to Jim’s mentoring.

On my 30th birthday Jim had experienced a brutal day of political attacks from legislators. Relaxing that evening in his office, I asked him why he continued to put up with the insults and arrows that grandstanding legislators constantly shot at him. He said he did it because he had to do it, that so many people who were mired in the shadows of our society desperately needed the services the department offered. He knew the desperate need of hungry and destitute people because he had been reared in that world.

The key to success in our kind of work, he said, was our ability to persevere as voices for the voiceless. Our success, Jim said, is not found in day-to-day victories but in our ability to persevere in a way that would outlive our tenure. “I will consider myself a success in life,” Jim said “if on my death bed I can look out and see at least 10 other people who I have touched in such a way that they devoted themselves to carrying on the mission.”

The Eulogy

I shared the privilege of being a eulogist at Jim’s memorial service with another cherished boss, mentor and friend in my life, Jack Watson. Jack was chair of the Department’s board when I worked in Georgia, and later became President Carter’s Chief of Staff. Jack and I offered our eulogies in the chapel of an Atlanta Unitarian Universalist church. As a conclusion to my words, I told the story of Jim’s hope that he would inspire at least 10 other people to carry on after he was gone. I asked if anybody in the congregation believed that they were among those 10, and if so, to please stand. Almost everybody stood and applause rippled through the room.  Jack and I nodded to one another, and I simply said “Amen” and sat down.

Jim got his final wish. Because of him, dozens if not hundreds of women and men have devoted their time to caring for the needy, the sick and the displaced people of our world.  Jim Parham, a diminutive gentle giant, called us to that work. Rest in Peace, dear friend.

 

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