Lillie Parker's legacy: A 'once-in-a-lifetime teacher'


“The mediocre teacher tells.

The good teacher explains.

The superior teacher demonstrates.

The great teacher inspires.”

— William Arthur Ward

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Lillie Bell Sanders Parker was a great teacher, both in her classroom and community.

Parker, who died Oct. 5 at the age of 78 in a fire at her Redfield home, left a remarkable legacy. Her dedication and influence as a White Hall School District special education teacher complemented her faithfulness and compassion as a 4-H volunteer leader. Parker served in both capacities for more than half a century.

“She was a wonderful lady,” said Carol Scaramuzza of Hot Springs, who worked with Parker nearly two decades at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service in Jefferson County before retiring in 2006. “She worked tirelessly with youth, helping them to achieve their fullest and richest potentials.

“She was always willing to give of herself,” Scaramuzza, a former extension agent who helped in overseeing 4-H programs, continued. “You could always count on her.”

Parker, Scaramuzza said, often quietly shared more than instruction and life lessons with her Miller 4-H Club students.

“She gave kids money, clothes and whatever else they might have needed so they could participate in activities and compete for scholarships,” Scaramuzza said. “And she would drive them wherever they needed to go so they could take advantage of opportunities. I truly think that she did without sometimes to help others.”

Current Jefferson County 4-H Agent Pia Woods has been in her job 17 years. She worked with Parker before the Jefferson native stepped down from her 4-H and teaching posts just five years ago.

Woods said Parker never thought twice about providing financial support to 4-H students whose families might not have been able to personally pay their expenses. But Parker’s interest in her 4-H charges reached beyond the youth organization’s standard pursuits. Parker coordinated family reunions for her 4-H students, helping them to attain a better sense of themselves and their personal heritage.

“She was influential in their lives,” Woods said. “Her kids were so involved. They had to be, because she didn’t accept anything less. She practiced with them. She traveled with them. She worked with them. She was a once-in-a-lifetime teacher and leader, and her students loved her and knew she loved them. Many of them called her ‘Aunt Lillie’ because they respected her so much.”

When the African-American Parker — who earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and a master’s at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville — began her teaching and 4-H careers, segregation was still the rule of the day here. Woods said the fruit of Parker’s labors with her black 4-H youth is evident today as many have become successful adults and are carrying on Parker’s traditions of 4-H service through their ongoing involvement in the organization.

“Lillie wouldn’t let her early African-American 4-Hers think they weren’t in any way equal to anyone else,” Woods said. Parker, Woods said, held no racial prejudice herself and stressed the same mindset among her 4-H charges.

Woods said Parker’s impact was statewide.

“Mrs. Parker had a perfect work ethic,” said Beth Joslin, principal at Moody Elementary School, where Parker worked for a good portion of her education career before retiring. “She seldom missed a day, and there was never a question about her taking care of her responsibilities. And it was simply a given that she would go the extra mile for her students, their parents, our school and our district.”

Joslin said that although Parker was Moody’s lone African-American teacher for many years, race was never an issue with Parker, her co-workers or school patrons.

“I don’t think Mrs. Parker saw skin color,” Joslin said. “I know she didn’t with her students and their parents and her fellow teachers. Everyone admired and respected her.

“She was a disciplinarian, but her students knew that she cared about them because she made it plain that she expected them to behave properly and always do their best,” Joslin said. “Her students would be disappointed in themselves if they ever felt they hadn’t lived up to her expectations. She was a religious person who led a principled professional life and was also upright as a wife, mother, grandmother, friend and neighbor.”

Once recognized with a district elementary school teacher of the year award, Parker had an ability to reach students whom others may have thought were unable to learn. At Parker’s funeral on Saturday at Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Jefferson, a grateful mother told fellow mourners that her son learned to read years ago under Parker’s patient but consistent coaching. Parker — who would have celebrated her 79th birthday on Sunday — achieved the task after the mother had been told her son would likely always be illiterate.

“I think Mrs. Parker was born to be a teacher,” Joslin said.

Deputy Superintendent Dorothy Welch has been with WHSD 25 years. She was Parker’s principal at Moody for 11 years prior to being promoted to her present position.

“She was the most giving and caring person I’ve ever known,” Welch said of Parker. “She loved her kids and wanted everyone else to love them too, and her kids and their parents loved her in return. She had an innate ability to have her kids do what they needed to do to learn. She had her own method. She was uncanny — I call it ‘old school.’

“She didn’t have to have everything under the sun to teach,” Welch said. “She utilized everyday tools to train them to live in this world. She always had a smile on her face. I smile when I think of her, and so do others who knew her.”

Welch said she recalls often being impressed by Parker’s zeal in being personally involved in her students’ development.

“She would always run with her kids when they were preparing for the Special Olympics,” Welch said. “She was doing that up to the time she retired when she was in her 70s. I think of the characteristics that are mentioned when people speak of their most memorable teachers. Mrs. Parker had those characteristics.

“She lived with a purpose to help her students achieve their goals and dreams,” Welch said. “That’s what great teachers do.”