Bill Parsons '62

  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: My name is Bill Parsons. I currently live in St. Petersburg, Florida, and I’m a member of the Grinnell class of 1962.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: I’m going to answer the questions on the form, here. Why did you come to Grinnell College, and what was your first memory of the campus? I came as a student in 1958, after I graduated from high school in Moline, Illinois. But I’d been on campus before that time because my sister graduated from Grinnell, and she was still a student, so I visited the campus to visit her. My father also graduated from Grinnell in 1924, so he had been there quite some time ago.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: But I’d heard stories about Grinnell and I was looking for a small, liberal arts college and I did apply to two of them and decided, after visiting both campuses, that Grinnell was where I wanted to go. So my first memories of the campus were probably before I was here as a student. And then, as I became a student I decided I had come, in fact, to the right place.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: Then I’m going to talk about a professor, or actually a couple of professors and a coach that had a particularly strong influence on my life at Grinnell and also later. When I came in 1958, Grinnell had just begun to teach Russian. I decided that that was an exotic language, and that was just after Sputnik. So, for my language I signed up for Russian. I wasn’t planning to do anything major with that language. It was more something just of an interest.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: I didn’t know what I wanted to major in, but I did start off in a History course which was one of the required courses, and that was one of the first professors that had a rather profound influence on me. That was Professor Joe Wall, who is sort of a legend here at the College, I think. I had my first course in History my first semester of my freshman year.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: They had a, I think it was a brand new program that year where you could sign up for a course- you’d sign up for a regular course but you could say, “I’d like to take this as an honors course.” And I was a little bit cocky at that time, and so I decided that, why not get the most out of it, so I was gonna sign up for the History course as an honors course. And I did, and in addition to all the regular reading, which was really quite extensive, he had me read five additional books and write papers on those. So, I did finish that, but still I wasn’t thinking I was a History major.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: I also signed up for an honors program in Calculus, which I thought was more in my specialty, but I learned early in that semester that Calculus and the honors course in Calculus was not for me. I was reading about probability and I didn’t really have the background. So, I did finish the Calculus class but I dropped the honors.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: I also was taking Russian and I thought, “Well, why not sign up for the honors program in Russian?” But our Russian professor, who was an interesting fellow and is one of the other professors who had a profound influence on me, said, “You can’t sign up for honors the first semester. You've gotta learn the language before you can do honors work.” So, I studied hard the first semester and then in fact did take the honors course the second semester in Russian.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: This professor’s name was Edmund Hire. He was from the Soviet Union. He was actually, I think, a Ukrainian German. He taught both Russian and German here at the college, but he was completely fluent- well, completely fluent in both languages and probably Ukrainian too, but that was not part of the program. He was very demanding and we started out with about thirty students, I think, that first year, and by the second semester we only had about half as many students continuing. At the beginning of second year Russian there were only eight of us left, although there was a new first year class.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: But, he was an excellent teacher and I kept in touch with him after I graduated, and learned a lot from him both about the language and about the reality of life in the Soviet Union. He actually had left during the Second World War. He’d been captured by the Germans, and had been in forced labor. When the war was over, he thought he would go back to the Soviet Union, but one of his officers said, “If you go back you’re gonna be in big trouble.” So he went to Canada and then he came to Grinnell, on this special teaching program.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: So, I did get started with the Russian language and then, in my second year, I took a course in Russian History. And that was a second person who was very important in my Grinnell education, That was Professor Sam Baron. He was a Colombia PhD in Russian History and he got me very interested in history of Russia as well as general history with Professor Wall.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: So, those were the three professors who had the most profound impact on me. I did go on and get a Masters in Soviet Studies at Harvard University, and got my PhD in History, in Russian history, from Indiana University and went on to teach Russian History at the college level for forty years in Florida, in another good Russian city, St. Petersburg, Florida, but not the Russian one.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: That’s another story. I did teach a course at my college of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg on the history of the two St. Petersburgs and the relations between those two St. Petersburgs. Our city in Florida was founded by a Russian, who named it for the city he grew up in, in Russia.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: The next- the last person I want to mention is Coach John Pfitsch. I did play on the basketball team while I was here, and he was quite a character as well as quite an influential former of personalities. We had a fairly good team in the sophomore year, and in our senior year we were conference champions. I think we were one of the few teams that was from Grinnell in the early years that was the conference championship, won the conference championship. Coach Pfitsch was not just a basketball coach but he was also a philosopher and I don't- you may not know him, but he’s been an institution here at the college as well.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: So, those four people I would say, the Professors Joe Wall and Sam Baron in History, Edmund Hire in Russian, and Coach John Pfitsch in Basketball.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: What are your best memories of your time at Grinnell? I think that this would probably be connected with, at least the on campus activities, with the basketball team. We had a really good camaraderie on the team, and we had an outstanding group of scholar-athletes which Grinnell tries to be famous for. In this group we had a number of people who went on and got PhDs and went on to be successful in different careers.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: But, we had a good time when we went to away games and went on the bus. We took our Grinnell class notes and studied, and books, whereas other people just sort of seemed to go to escape. And in fact, on some of those trips some of the professors went with us. Joe Wall was a basketball fan and he went with us on a couple of the bus trips and it was interesting to interact with the faculty. I think we had a good relationship with the faculty here and, again, with the members of the team. Of course, it helps when you’re winning, and we had a good record so that was a fun thing to do.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: The second thing that was probably the most important event in my undergraduate career at Grinnell didn’t actually take place on the Grinnell campus. I had a junior year abroad program, and I think that’s another thing that Grinnell is quite famous for. Although, I wasn’t on an established program. I was on a part of an exchange program with Poland. This is in 1960 -61, and there weren’t many undergraduate programs in Eastern Europe at that time.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: We had a Polish student from Warsaw who studied at Grinnell while I was in Krakow, or Krakowia, for the year, the academic year. It was very difficult for me at first because I wasn’t fluent in Polish by any means when I went there, but by the end of the second semester I did in fact take some classes and wrote some seminar papers and was part of the history program there. I also took one course in Russian Literature so that was something that I could more or less handle, and of course I learned a lot of Polish.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: I also played on a basketball team in Poland. I didn’t go there thinking that that was a possibility. But, one day, when I was in the dorm, one of the Polish students came up and said, “You’re from America. You must play basketball,” and I said, “Well, it just so happens,” that I did. And so I went out for that team and did get a chance to play.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: And it went very well. It was not a bad team; it was a good team, but the teams we played were not that good and so we went undefeated during the year. Unfortunately, we lost the tournament in the tournament, but we had a good record and again there was a lot of camaraderie in that, among the Polish students and among the players on that team. In fact, this last summer I went back to Poland for my 50th Reunion and I met up with about six or seven of the people that I had studied with and played basketball with, and it was really a great experience because, except for one of them, I hadn’t seen any of them for fifty years. But we had a good reunion, and I got a chance to refresh my Polish because two of them still didn’t speak any English.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: When we had trouble, we went into Russian because they were all students who had studied Russian. They had to study Russian in Poland at that time. So, we could get along if we needed to, in Russian. But it was quite an experience and I think Grinnell is a place where things like that can happen. They maybe facilitate people who want to do something unusual, or they encourage you to do something a little bit unusual. So I think that was a good thing.
  • Bill Parsons
    Bill: I just found out, on this trip for this reunion, I went back to look in a couple of the student newspapers where I had actually written an article or two. I found out that this exchange program, and this was the first I had realized, was actually funded by Roswell Garst who was the American farmer who was the host for Khrushchev back in 1959. So that was all part of the same interest in Russia that I think was very much important for Grinnell at that time and for the whole country, really. I think that’s all I have to say.
  • Tamara Grbusic
    Tamara: Great. Thank you.
Alumni oral history interview with Bill Parsons '62. Recorded June 1, 2012.
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