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When I attended LaFollette High School in Madison, there was only one black family in the school. But Gene Parks, one year ahead of me, was the smartest guy in our school. And if I recall right we were at least semi-friends. He recently died at a young age. If you do read the article, notice the references to Paul Soglin. More on him at the end of the article.

IT COULDN'T have been 10 days ago that I asked someone in the newsroom: "What's up with Gene Parks?"

It had struck me that I hadn't heard from Gene in months, and that was unusual. My newsroom friend hadn't heard anything lately, either. We sort of shrugged and moved on.

I wish I had pursued it. I might have had a last chance to talk to Gene, who died on Monday at 57.

We weren't close friends, but we had known each other a long time. Twenty-five years ago I spent a lot of time with Gene when I wrote a cover story on him for the Madison newspaper City Lights, an early 1980s competitor of Isthmus. The editor, David Chandler, titled it "The Devil and Eugene Parks." That seemed harsh, but Gene by then was controversial.

He lived his life in the public eye, and at first the spotlight seemed like a good fit. The earliest headlines came in 1963, when Gene was a junior at La Follette. He and his twin sister were the first blacks to attend that high school. He wrote an impassioned letter to the editor of the State Journal on the subject of racism and civil rights, saying he might leave the country if the situation didn't improve. He received an outpouring of support, and his picture was in the paper. A short time later, he was elected president of the Wisconsin Association of Student Councils.

The future seemed to be all his. Gene brought passion and intelligence and political skills - he was a champion debater in high school and college - to the public arena in a city seemingly predisposed to receive him favorably. He won election to the City Council while still a college student.

Over the next decade, though, Gene Parks and Madison were increasingly at odds. He was one of the first - though hardly the last - to suggest that Madison's liberal reputation was more talk than action. In the 1970s he attacked establishment liberals like Mayor Paul Soglin and Police Chief David Couper for being slow on minority hiring. He did not always manage his personal life as well as he might have, and his celebrity made him an easy target for those who did not like him.

I remember when I did that City Lights story profile of Gene in the early 1980s, I had phoned his wife to get her perspective. She politely declined to participate in the story. "I don't think this is the right time for a big story on Eugene," she said.

But Gene either would not or could not leave the public eye. He may have lost elections, but he never lost his voice. He worked for Monroe Swan in the State Capitol, and then in 1979, Ed Durkin, the Madison fire chief and a man willing to play a hunch, hired Gene in a top administrative post in the Fire Department.

In 1985, a new Madison mayor, Joe Sensenbrenner, hired Parks as the city's affirmative action officer. By April 1988 Parks had created so many waves in the job - accusing UW-Madison and city officials of being slow to recognize racism on a number of fronts - that the State Journal ran a story wondering if Parks would be fired.

Recalling that frenzied time, I once wrote: "I don't know who Sensenbrenner thought he was getting, but he got a passionate and flawed man who spoke loud and often on the subject of race."

Later that year, in October 1988, Gene and I were having a drink in the old Fess bar when someone from the City Attorney's Office entered and handed Gene a letter from Sensenbrenner telling Parks he was fired. Gene was outraged both by his dismissal and how it was handled. He immediately resolved to get even and filed a lawsuit. I wrote later:

"The bitter feud with Sensenbrenner and city officialdom eventually earned Parks a settlement of close to half a million dollars, but the personal cost of the battle was huge. I remember visiting him in the in the mid-1990s in his dad's old bar, Mr. P's, which by then was closed. Gene blew some dust off a whiskey bottle and we sat and talked surrounded by enormous stacks of court briefs and transcripts. It looked like a command bunker and Parks spoke as if besieged. He was angry. By then, that was his natural condition."

That was true, I think, but Gene also had a wonderful sense of humor and one of the loudest laughs I have ever heard. I remember a few years ago on a slow day I had invited readers to suggest how many Madisonians it would take to change a light bulb. I got dozens of responses, but only one actual person was named. "Just one," somebody wrote. "Gene Parks can talk a light bulb into its socket."

Gene called and said, "After all these years, I'm a light bulb joke?" But then he let out that great laugh.

When Gene resigned from his last city job - a position in the sign shop of Traffic Engineering, after a judge ruled Sensenbrenner had fired him illegally - he called me exactly two minutes after submitting his resignation. It was an early morning in June 2002. "There is no controversy. I was not asked to resign. I just decided that after nearly 24 years, it is time for me to move on." He paused, and in true Gene Parks fashion, said: "I intend to announce my candidacy for mayor next week."

Now we are left to ponder his legacy. It's mixed, but considerable. When he was comforting the afflicted, Gene was great. When he sought to afflict the comfortable - sometimes passing on unsubstantiated rumors - he was less than great.

I remember Nelson Algren, the fiercely talented Chicago writer, saying that to knock a city, you first have to earn the right by proving you care about it.

Over four decades, nobody in Madison earned that right more than Gene Parks.

Paul Soglin was a well known UW campus radical who later became Mayor of Madison (and a good mayor he was). David Marannis, a Pulitzer-price winning reporter for the Washington Post (with a critically acclaimed biography of Clinton) wrote a book called "They Marched Into Sunlight" about events at the Madison, WI campus (anti-war protests with Soglin) and in Vietnam on the same day in October of 1967. It is a worthwhile read. Marannis' father was the editor of the Madison newspaper in which the tribute to Parks was printed.

Edited by Tim Gratz
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I guess the connection to the events we are discussing is Paul Soglin, the one-time student radical who became an "establishment liberal". And gives me an opportunity to "plug" Marannis book which is an interesting study of the beginning of the anti-war movement on the UW campus.

One thing I like about Key West is its cultural diversity. When we first moved here, one of my best friends was a black WWII veteran named Walter Thoms, a great man (with leftist political views, of course). Walter was a fantastic painter and he did an outstanding portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. which is now hung in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center in Key West. (I think Key West should donate the original to the King family. It is really an extraordinary portait.

Walter and I used to play chess and debate politics. (He always beat me in chess!)

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