TRAVERSE CITY — Ken Parker, a newspaperman, author, and a driving force behind the Old Town Playhouse and the new Traverse City library, died at age 99.
Parker’s son, Robert, said his father died peacefully on Saturday, surrounded by family, at Traverse Manor. He resided there with his wife, Betty, until her death in June 2012.
“He stopped playing Scrabble two and a half weeks ago. That tipped us off the end must be near,” said Robert, who described his dad with one word: “gracious.”
Robert said his dad lived a rich and meaningful life and was most proud of his years as a journalist.
He founded the Antrim County News in 1947 and later acquired the Mancelona Herald. He sold both papers in 1959 and joined the Traverse City Record-Eagle, where he worked as a reporter and city editor. He became public relations director for Traverse City Area Public Schools in 1971 and wrote Record-Eagle columns for another eight years.
“He wrote at the top of the list, as far as quality reporters go. He was just a wonderful reporter and a good person,” said Gil Bogley, a former Record-Eagle publisher.
Harry Cook said Parker was his mentor in journalism — more than he ever knew. He “gently edited” his sports articles for the Antrim County News in 1955 and 1956, while teaching him the basics. Later Cook became a religion editor and op-ed columnist at the Detroit Free Press.
“Ken from time-to-time would sit down at his prehistoric manual typewriter — with partial M’s and W’s missing — and snap off little critiques always laced with praise and encouragement,” he said.
Parker authored two books, “Be Independent! Start Your Own Newspaper” and “Civilian at War,” in which he recounted his front line World War II experiences.
“He was a doughboy slugger, he was a trench guy, he lived through it, but like so many people in that war, he didn’t talk about it. But he wrote a book about it,” Bogley said.
Jeanette Mason, a veteran Old Town Playhouse director, met the Parkers in 1971 when Ken auditioned for a major role in Mame. It was one of his many acting and singing roles from 1969 through 1982.
“He started early in the playhouse years,” she said. “Betty would produce for me. They were both so politically and artistically involved.”
Parker was an extraordinary storyteller, Mason said.
“I would be invited to their afternoon sessions where Ken would make me a Manhattan or a gin martini, and we’d be there with Bill and Helen Milliken and another newspaper guy, and we’d discuss politics,” she said.
Mason said the group knew change was needed in the area and would discuss the possibilities, such as building a new library.
“He and Betty saw the library as a necessary entity for our community to thrive and grow,” she said. “You can hardly say Ken or Betty. It always comes out as Ken and Betty. They worked as a duo all their lives.”
Ken persuaded Mason and others to donate $1,000 to help build the new Traverse Area District Library, which opened its doors in 2000. He used his “small but sure” sales pitch, she said.
“Ken would say, ‘Let’s break this down. If you gave this much this year, and this much next year, how much is it and what does this particular service mean to you?’” she said. “He did that with the library and he did it with the playhouse when the fire marshal closed us down because we were out of code.”
Former Michigan Gov. William Milliken recalled dinner conversations he and Helen had with the Parkers, Ken and LouAnn Taylor, Frank and Dottie Stulen, and John and Betty Parsons.
“It was a lot of fun, and Ken was an important participant,” Milliken said. “He was progressive in his thinking. The conversation in that group was highly enlightening, and each person had something to contribute.”
Terrie Taylor recalled Ken Parker and Bill Milliken taking turns lobbing political issues onto the table for discussion.
“I always listened in awe of their erudition,” said Taylor, a Michigan State University professor. “They didn’t always agree, but it was always civil.”
Parker leaves behind three children: Robert, Marilyn and Nancy and seven grandchildren.