Farewell, Dorothy

Well-known local peace activist passes away at 84

Dorothy Parker pictured in 2005.

Dorothy Parker pictured in 2005.


Celebrate Dorothy’s life:
A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 16, at New Vision United Church of Christ (formerly Congregational Church of Chico, UCC), 1190 E. First Ave.

“Dorothy was always completely honest and straightforward,” Louis Parker said of his wife, a local peace activist who passed away last Thursday, June 6, at the age of 84. “She was one of those rare people that always walked her talk, and she wasn’t afraid to suffer the consequences.”

In November 2005, Parker “walked her talk” under a fence and over a line at a School of the Americas protest in Fort Benning, Ga., the consequences of which were a 57-day stint—at the age of 77—in the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin.

The Georgia-based School of the Americas (SOA)—known officially since 2001 as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC—is a controversial facility where Latin American military and police officers are trained by American personnel. Critics say some of the school’s graduates return to their home countries and use their training to oppress poor populations, destabilize governments, carry out kidnappings and death-squad hits, and commit other human-rights violations.

“She wasn’t treated well at all while she was there; they considered what she did to be unpatriotic,” Louis said of his wife’s prison stay in the Bay Area. “Near the beginning [of her stay], she sent a sketch of her cell to friends back home, and [prison officials] called it an escape attempt.”

Though obviously grieving, Louis let out a chuckle as he continued: “They actually thought a 77-year-old woman was going to try to get over the wall.”

While Louis can laugh now, it was no joking matter at the time. While Dorothy was in the facility, her commissary, communication and outdoor privileges were suspended. She was denied prescription medications and spent most of her time in a 7-by-10-foot cell with two other inmates, sharing a metal toilet and water fountain with no privacy. She kept a journal and, upon her release, self-published her accounts in a book titled You Too Could Go to Federal Prison.

Dorothy later said her prison stay was much worse than she anticipated, that she was shocked by the coldness and conduct of the guards. She expressed her horror at how many women were serving time simply for being related or married to drug offenders while committing no crime themselves. As bad as it was, she quipped that at least she didn’t have to face a firing squad, as others she’d met through her humanitarian work in Central America had (see “Better than a firing squad,” Newslines, June 15, 2006).

Dorothy’s interest in Latin America began in 1979, when she made her first trip to build houses in rural Nicaragua with Habitat For Humanity. She made the same pilgrimage every year after, co-leading contingents of 18 people and sometimes spending her entire summers building homes and schools in Central America. During these trips, she made several friends and developed an “extended family,” many of whom were directly affected and even killed during the U.S.-backed Contra war.

Louis recalled that Dorothy’s humanitarian work and activism dated back much earlier. In 1954, she had traveled to what was then called Portuguese Angola with her first husband, to teach and help people there develop agriculture. Louis and Dorothy met in the early 1970s when both were volunteering at a crisis help-line. Dorothy was so affected by that experience she pursued a career in mental health, and for many years worked for Butte County Behavioral Health as a drug-and-alcohol counselor.

Until her diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease a year and a half ago, she remained active as a founder and board member of the Chico Peace and Justice Center, as well as with Habitat for Humanity, continuing her Central American excursions and even returning to SOA/WHINSEC protests, though she never “crossed the line” again.

“She was definitely an inspiration and a mentor figure to me,” said fellow activist Cathy Webster. Webster said she met Dorothy through CPJC actions and eventually formed a strong friendship. Webster even followed in Dorothy’s footsteps to jail, entering the Ft. Benning base during an SOA protest and serving jail time herself.

Webster said Dorothy’s prison experience weighed heavily on the woman, even years later.

“Of course she never broke, and she wasn’t so upset at the way she was treated, because part of our training in activism focuses on being aware of the fact that we are somewhat privileged white people who choose to trespass and serve the time,” Webster explained. “But she was appalled at how other women there were treated, and at the whole system that brought them there, especially women of color.

“She met people who had been beaten down their whole lives and continued to be beaten down,” Webster continued. “She was a really compassionate person who was very committed to justice, and felt it wasn’t right people remained in poverty and were oppressed in various ways, not just in Nicaragua and Central America, but here in the U.S., and around the world.”

It is interesting that Dorothy, the dedicated peacenik willing to serve federal prison time as a “prisoner of conscience,” remained a registered Republican until her recent passing.

“It is kind of funny, but I don’t think it’s that strange,” Webster said. “She believed in being true to yourself, in being strong and independent and self-sufficient, and she was very active in her church and loved her family.

“Some people consider those ‘conservative values,’ but a lot of liberals feel the same way. But she certainly opposed war, and opposed anyone using their power to oppress others.”

Louis said he and his wife didn’t always see eye-to-eye politically, noting his own military background (he served in the Korean War), stint in law enforcement and 55-year career as a private detective, a profession Dorothy sometimes said could be morally ambiguous.

“But we had an understanding. It took the first few years of our marriage to adjust, but we worked it out. I always stayed out of her way and appreciated that, well, whatever she was up to, that’s Dorothy.

“Even if we didn’t agree, I always supported her,” Louis said, recalling he didn’t even bat an eye when Dorothy informed him she had every intention of getting arrested and serving her time. He continued, half-jokingly, shaking his head as he wiped a tear from his eye. “I always said the only mistake that woman ever made in her life was marrying me, a private detective with a questionable background.”

Dorothy suffered a brain aneurism early Thursday morning and was transported from Sycamore Glen—where she’d lived since her diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease—to Enloe Medical Center. She was surrounded by friends and family at the time of her passing later that morning.