James J. Parsons Memorial


Return to People and History


November 15, 1915--February 19, 1997



Jim Parsons died at home in Berkeley this morning, February 19, of a brain tumor. He was 81. He is survived by his wife Betty of 54 years, a son David of Florence, Montana, a daughter Sally Stewart of Boise, Idaho, and three grandchildren, Parker Parsons and Alec and Sara Stewart. His son John preceded him in death.

Tomorrow will be the first day at Berkeley without Jim Parsons. He was Berkeley. He was Geography at Berkeley. He informed us, he encouraged us, he wrote letters on our behalf for grants and jobs, and he read what we wrote and told us to keep going, to write more, to go to the field more, and to stop by his office to chat, to see the latest books. His love for geography inspired us.

His Itinerant Geographer informed and entertained us and made us part of the Berkeley Geography family. His typed letters with the xxxxxx's were "keepers" (Bob West kept the 50 letters he received from Jim). He sent us clippings and articles with penciled notes signed JJP. And for those of us who went to a Parsons lecture we will always remember along with his vast knowledge that the lecture notes were on the back of an envelope or a grocery store receipt.

Jim and Betty made Geography at Berkeley a home, not just a department. At their Woodmont Avenue home in the Berkeley Hills they hosted generations of students, faculty and visitors. Jim was always in the department and received every visitor, every student who wanted to know something about somewhere, every faculty member who came in with that "you-can't-believe-what-just-happened" look. Invitations to go with Jim to lunch, on a field trip, or to a Cal basketball game were frequent outcomes of dropping by his office in the department. Many a student left Jim's office amazed and delighted that he was enthusiastic about what they were interested in and that he had loaned them just the right books to read more about it.

Besides supporting Berkeley Geography and Berkeley geographers, Jim and Betty supported Cal sports--all of them. Football and basketball for sure, they were longtime season ticket holders, but also they were there with "Go Bear" cheers for track, baseball, waterpolo. Jim and Dave Larson (PhD'94), wrote a wonderful Rumpelstiltskin piece on the Bears' rocky 1995 football season in the December 1995 California Monthly.

Born on November 15, 1915 in Cortland, New York, James Jerome Parsons was 13 years old when his family moved to Monrovia, California in 1928. He went to Pasadena Junior College where he was editor of the newspaper. He came to UC Berkeley in 1934 and majored in Economics, graduating in 1937. He had met Carl Sauer ("Mr. Sauer") and was impressed and interested in the cultural historical work that was developing in Berkeley's Geography Department. Jim and his good friend Joe Phillips went to the Sauer's Thanksgiving Day "Open House", where Jim got a chance to talk to Mr. Sauer. After graduation, Jim went to Ukiah, northern California, to work for the Redwood Journal, 1937-1938. Back at Berkeley, Mr. Sauer ran into Joe Phillips on campus one day and asked him, "Whatever happened to that fellow Parsons?" Joe replied, "He's working at a newspaper." "What a mistake," Mr. Sauer remarked, "he should be in Geography." Joe Phillips wrote a letter to Jim to tell him what Mr. Sauer had said and Jim wrote to Mr. Sauer that he was on his way back to Berkeley. Mr. Sauer never answered the letter but Jim came anyway and began graduate studies in Geography in the Fall of 1938.

Jim met Betty Rupp in a Geography class at Berkeley. Originally from Chicago, Betty's family had moved to Oakland when she was 8 years old. At the University of California she majored and graduated in Education. Jim was drafted into the Army in October 1941 and sent to Field Artillery School in Lawton, Oklahoma. Jim and Betty were married October 30, 1942 in Oklahoma City. Soon after Jim was sent to work on airphoto interpretation in Admiral Halsey's headquarters in New Caledonia. Jim was back in California on leave in August, 1945 when the war ended and he was discharged from the service.

Back in graduate school in the Fall of 1945, Jim quickly finished his course requirements, taught a Spring 1946 course, and left with Betty for Colombia in May of that year to do the research for his dissertation which he finished in 1948. In the Spring of 1948 Jim began teaching as an Assistant Professor. On how they came to Berkeley Betty said, "When Jim came back after the war, Mr. Sauer put him to work and we just stayed."


Jim in Colombia, 1950's

And stayed they did. Jim and Betty educated and fed several generations of geographers. Parsons' students were something special, even at Berkeley. They'd been to the field, the real field, out there places. They'd been to the archives, to the homes of regular people, they spoke the languages, and they wrote about those people and those places with a clarity and honesty rare in academia. They were Parsons' students afterall and he set a standard that nobody wanted to fall short of. He chaired 38 PhD's and they are some of geography's best.

Jim's wide range of publications are a lasting and valuable contribution to our knowledge of people and places, his beloved Antioquia, Colombia, to the presence of the past on the landscape, and to the geographer's sense of place (Jim once said he'd never forgotten a place he'd been to). Jim informed us about hops, coffee, the Miskito pine savanna, California, Colombia, green turtles, gold mining, bananas, fog drip, starlings, acorns and hogs, cork oak forests, ridged fields, African grasses in the New World, airline pilots, cattle, Canary Islanders, hillside letters, and more, much more. He gave us a greater appreciation of the nature and diversity of geography. His books and articles stand on our book shelves and remind us what a remarkable person we had the privilege to know and love. His geographer's life was something, something great, something good.

Jim in Costa Rica, ca. 1968

He published reviews of 76 books, 1946-1996. Jim's reviews were great reviews; for many of the authors they were the best review. Jim had a system. He'd read a book and if he liked it he would write a review and send it in, sometimes unasked for by a book review editor, but happily received and published. If he read a book and didn't like it, he didn't write a review. That way, he said, good books get noticed.

Jim was twice chairman of the Geography Department, a total of 11 years. He served several times as Chairman of the Center of Latin American Studies. He was President of the Pacific Coast Geographers in 1954-55, and President of the Association of American Geographers, 1974-1975.

He received many awards and honors, among which include a Guggenheim (1959-60), a gold medal from the government of Antioquia, Colombia (1977), AAG Honors (1983), the Berkeley Citation (1986), another gold medal from the government of Antioquia in 1987 the Pedro Justo Berrío Medal, an Honorary Professor award from the University of Caldas, Manizales, Colombia, the "Trabajador de la Cultura" medal from the Instituto de Integración Cultural, Medellín, Colombia, 1989, and the Distinguished Mentor Award from the National Council for Geographic Education in 1991.

Jim retired in May, 1986. Many people came to that retirement party held at the Men's Faculty Club on the UC campus. But of course, Jim really didn't retire. He still came to work everyday, he still talked to young people interested in geography and places and people, he still came to the Tea Talks, and he and Betty still went on field trips and they still cheered for Cal teams.

This is just a snapshot of JJP amid the immediate sadness and grief from the passing of a great geographer and a good friend. At the same time I remember that Jim was always smiling. Jim smiled more than anyone I ever knew. And as we remember our times with him, in the office, at the Berkeley Hills house, at the Cal gems, in the field, we have to smile too. Those were some times.

At noon today a Berkeley geography student went to the main campus flagpole to lower the flag in Jim's memory. He was stopped and questioned by the Campus Police. At that moment Vice Chancellor Carol Christ walked out of California Hall and asked what was going on. The student, Francis Smith, said, "I was trying to lower the flag in Professor Parsons' memory, he died this morning." Vice Chancellor Christ told the Police, "Let him go. It is a campus tradition to lower the flag when a professor dies. For Professor Parsons the flag will be lowered to halfmast tomorrow."

A Jim Parsons memorial will be held later this year.

Bernard Nietschmann, February 19, 1997


Return to People and History