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Life’s unexpected turns brought Parks to Pierce for 29 years
June 12, 2018
Random coincidence, impulses led him to his careers as a reporter, documentarian, teacher
Note from editor: This article was updated.
As punishment, Michael Webster Parks’s fifth-grade teacher made him write 100 words as to why he shouldn’t speak without raising his hand. Each subsequent offense increased the wordage by 100. By the time Parks reached 600 words, he convinced his teacher instead to let him write stories about a fictional boy who had joined the Union Army during the Civil War.
After three such installments, Parks was convinced he wanted to be a novelist some day. In fact, when in high school his parents urged him to choose a college, he refused. “I was going to be a novelist – or nothing!” Parks said.
However, wiser heads prevailed and after graduation in 1972 he attended Everett Community College, where he took creative writing courses and began work on a (still unfinished) novel. In his senior year at Seattle Pacific College (now University), “that ‘nothing’ option began coming up real fast, so I figured I needed a third doorway,” he said.
Parks enrolled in a journalism course and began writing for the student newspaper, The Falcon. He still wasn’t convinced journalism was his best bet, and got sidetracked in studying biblical history, graduating SPC in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies.
“For a while I thought I might go into the ministry, but then I regained my senses,” he said. “Or maybe God did; I’m still not quite sure who drew first.”
After graduation, Parks spent a year working at a car wash, a pizza parlor and even for a forestry service before deciding to return to school to pursue news writing, receiving a bachelor’s degree in editorial journalism in 1978.
Almost immediately he was hired as a fulltime reporting for the Centralia Daily Chronicle. “I was the first person the editor interviewed and he hired me on the spot,” Parks said. “I didn’t even have that much experience, having done only a little freelancing with the university’s paper.”
Parks said he is sure he was hired because the editor who interviewed him had become a born again Christian a few months earlier, and probably saw Parks’ degree in biblical studies.
“So it all kind of weirdly worked out,” Parks said.
For the next three years he worked as a reporter for the Chronicle and then as an editor for a community weekly in Lake City, a suburb of Seattle. He said one of the highlights of his reporting career was being able to use his credentials to be let past a police barricade of the road leading to Mount St. Helens after it began steaming.
“I was standing on Goat Rocks,” Parks said. “Two months later, when the mountain blew, Goat Rocks was incinerated.”
After the paper he was working for was sold, the entire staff was laid off, so Parks returned to school to pursue a Masters in Communications from the University of Washington. As his thesis, Parks wrote a 300-page script scenario for what he envisioned as a docudrama miniseries on the political machinations that led to the Sioux War of 1876 and the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn, or more popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand.
One of Parks’ personal passions is anything Custeriana. He blames it on a children’s book he read in the fourth grade titled “Custer’s Last Stand.” As soon as he picked it up and started reading it, he said he was hooked. It was that interest that led him to his docudrama thesis for his master’s degree.
While Parks was wrapping up his thesis in 1983, a fire broke out at Custer Battlefield in Montana that burned off more than 100 years of thick vegetation and brush. Tourists began reporting finding bullets and even human bones, which led to a five-week archeological dig of the site.
Parks volunteered for the full five weeks and in the process managed to convince two dozen news crews to donate a copy of their footage to his efforts to create a documentary on the dig. With a few small grants and much donated help, Parks was able to complete the film, titled “History Recovered: The Custer Battlefield Survey of 1984.” The program was aired on PBS and was narrated by Dick Cavett, a well-known talk show host.
Parks said his career is marked by half random coincidence and half impulse, and the documentary is an example.
“That a fire would break out at the Battlefield just as I was wrapping up my thesis about this battle and that I would be accepted as a volunteer?” Parks asks in wonder.
As for the impulse: “I had no clue what was involved when I started the film project. I had never even operated a camcorder, let alone done any kind of film work,” Parks said. “If I knew what I would go through to make it happen, I probably would not have tried. There is a joy in ignorance sometimes.”
His interview with the editor at the Daily Chronicle is another example, with the editor just having become a Christian and seeing Parks’ degree. “When he offered me the job, he asked me if I wanted some time to think about it. I was a little in shock so I said, yes, I would. I stood up, and a voice in my head said, ‘Seriously dude?’ I sat down and asked when he wanted me to start.”
Parks worked at a Greyhound bus depot in Everett for five years while going to school and working on his film. He decided a career in teaching might be his best bet and applied for a position teaching English at Everett Community College. He didn’t get it, but something better was waiting.
“I had been working at the bus depot when one night I had to ‘escort’ a drunk out the door,” Parks said. “He lost his footing, bounced off a wall and almost went over a railing. He stood up, looked at me sadly and said, ‘It doesn’t take much to push a drunk around, does it?’ The next morning I quit.”
Parks said about a month later, as his money was running out, he lay in bed one October morning wondering if he had made a terrible mistake in quitting. Just then the phone rang and it was the humanities dean at Everett Community College.
“Their journalism instructor had had to go out on medical leave suddenly,” Parks explained. “They had seen my resume from when I applied for the English position, recalled I had journalism experience and a master’s degree, and wanted to know if I would finish up his year teaching and advising the school paper. I said sure; when do you want me to start? Winter quarter? They said: yesterday. I accepted and was at the college within an hour.”
One could say teaching was his destiny. “I never set out to be a teacher; it was somewhat inevitable though,” Parks said. When he accepted the position at Everett for the year, he was third generation there, with his father (who taught marine biology), his grandfather (business) and his grandmother (home econ) having taught at that same college. Aunts, uncles, great grandparents and numerous relatives on his ancestral tree all were teachers, including Noah Webster, who was not only the creator of a dictionary but also a teacher and a newspaper man.
After four quarters of teaching at Everett, Parks accepted an offer to teach journalism as a full-time, tenure track professor at Pierce College in 1989. However, he said it has been his advising work with The Pioneer that has been the most rewarding.
“In the classroom, the students have to be there for a degree requirement. Some want to be there; some don’t. Some take it seriously; some don’t,” Parks said. “But with The Pioneer, staff members want to be there. They are hungry to learn and to grow. And because of that, I have been able to work with the best, the brightest, the most creative and most hard-working people I’ve ever met. For almost 30 years, it has been not just a career, but an honor.”
Parks said he hopes now to return where he left off 30 years ago to pursue teaching, and to finally complete that novel still sitting unfinished in his desk drawer.
“Sometimes, as I come to the final days of this career, I feel a little bit like Dorothy Gale,” Parks said. “She had this fantastic adventure in Oz, only to wake up and find herself back in Kansas where she left off, better for the experience.”