Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
(ALLEGHENY COUNTY, Pa.) -- John B. Parker demonstrated his passion for public service in his work as a lieutenant with the Allegheny County sheriff's office, as a Sunday school teacher and as a Democratic committeeman.
Mr. Parker, who lived in East Liberty for 30 years, was the second African American to become a sheriff's deputy.
Although he was a lawman, when young people he knew got into trouble or wound up in prison, he often steered them back onto the right path and helped them find work.
Mr. Parker, 93, died of cancer Thursday at Heartland Health Care Center in Shadyside.
For his work in the black community, Mr. Parker received a Trailblazer Award in 1998 from Renaissance Publications, an Uptown business.
Connie Portis, president and publisher at Renaissance Publications, said Mr. Parker's work as a sheriff's deputy at the Allegheny County Courthouse earned him much respect.
"That's one of the reasons why he was a trailblazer. He did his job with dignity. I think he was a role model for those who came after him. We give awards to those who have broken down barriers and opened doors for others to follow," Portis said.
Mr. Parker, she said, "was always ready to give lessons," whether it was by example or as a Sunday school teacher at the Lincoln Avenue Church of God in East Liberty, where he also served as a deacon, trustee and choir member.
"He was stern but he had a very calm manner about him," Portis said.
Mr. Parker was born in Cox, Ala. When his father found work as a coal miner in Western Pennsylvania, Mr. Parker came to Pittsburgh with his family; he was about 9 years old.
After attending Lincoln Elementary School, Mr. Parker began his first year at Westinghouse High School. His father's death forced him to quit school and work to support his mother and seven siblings.
One of his first jobs was with Pittsburgh Railway Co. His daughter, Joan Baugh of Wilkinsburg, said her father inflated his age in order to get work.
In the 1930s, Mr. Parker washed windows at the Union Trust Building. In 1932, he became the first black worker to serve as a shop steward for a union that represented window washers in that building.
During the 1940s, Mr. Parker took three weeks of training and became one of the first black welders at the Dravo Corp. shipyard on Neville Island.
"When he went to apply, there were few African Americans," his daughter said. "They used to say 'Dravo or Tokyo.' If you didn't make it there as a ship builder, you were shipped out for active duty."
For several years, Mr. Parker made dime-sized welds on the sides of the Navy's LST landing craft, which supported the Allied invasion of France during World War II.
Mr. Parker was determined to finish his high school education and completed it through a night program at Schenley High School in 1950. He studied math, chemistry and foreign languages, racking up a slew of A's.
"He was valedictorian of the class. There was a young Caucasian woman who was neck and neck with him there. Even though he came out on top, they refused to give him the accolades," Baugh said.
The young woman was named valedictorian, while Mr. Parker received a dozen long-stemmed roses, Baugh said.
His encounter with discrimination did not stop him from learning throughout his life and using his knowledge of history to better understand the Bible and Christianity.
"He loved to learn so much and just had a love for books and reading and knowledge. Truly, up until the day he got very, very ill in October, he still studied and explored the Bible," his daughter said.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, Mr. Parker and his wife, Helen, ran a home remodeling and decorating business. Many of their clients were judges, lawyers and doctors who lived in Squirrel Hill and Mt. Lebanon, Baugh said.
"Most of their business came from word of mouth. Everything that my father did was always done with perfection. He would not leave a job until everything was absolutely clean. He taught me that you didn't leave anything unturned, undone or unclean," she said.
In the 1960s, Mr. Parker moved his family to East Liberty, where he became politically active with the Democratic Party. He encouraged people to vote by holding rallies at churches and arranging rides to the polls on Election Day.
Mr. Parker's activism led to his being hired as a sheriff's deputy in the mid-1960s. In 1968, he was appointed supervisor of officers in the Family Division of Common Pleas Court.
He often escorted prisoners to the courtroom of Common Pleas Judge Samuel Strauss.
Mr. Parker retired from the sheriff's office in 1988.
He was the first African American to serve as president of the Allegheny County Retired Persons organization, a group of retired county employees with 4,000 members.
In addition to his daughter and his wife, Mr. Parker is survived by two sons, Paul and Lewis, both of Homewood; and two sisters, Rose Bennett of Homewood and Ruth Bey of East Liberty.
Visitation will be held tonight from 7 to 9 p.m. and tomorrow from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. at Lincoln Avenue Church of God, 404 Lincoln Ave., East Liberty.
A service will be held at the church at 11 a.m. Thursday.
Arrangements are by Percy E. Law Funeral Home, Wilkinsburg.
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