SEATTLE - At his 90th birthday party, April 24, Will Parry picked up his guitar and led 400 union brothers and sisters, family, comrades, and friends in singing "Carry It On," ending, "No more tears, for we're still singing."
Sponsored by the Puget Sound Alliance of Retired Americans, the celebration resounded with songs, poetry, and heartfelt tributes. Parry together with his late wife, Louise, helped build the labor movement and the senior citizen movement in the Pacific Northwest. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Washington, he worked as a factory worker at Longview Fiber, a box factory organized by the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers.
Robby Stern, PSARA president, told the banquet crowd, "Will has had an inspiring presence in the lives of everyone who is here. I have had the responsibility of stepping into the incredible shoes of the incredible Will Parry."
Stern urged the crowd to help place on the ballot an initiative to establish a "a really progressive income tax in Washington State." The initiative would tax couples with $400,000 income while lowering property taxes 20 percent. Washington State's soak-the-poor 8 percent sales tax has generated sharply lower revenues during this recession, forcing health care and public education cutbacks. "Sign up if you are prepared to go out and collect signatures," Stern said. "This is the opportunity of our lifetime and we have to win it."
Rep. Jim McDermott's aide, David Loud, read a letter from the lawmaker hailing Parry as a leader of the fight for comprehensive, universal health care reform. "We are indebted to you for your years of service," McDermott wrote.
Ed Coyle, executive director of the Alliance of Retired Americans, brought greetings from ARA headquarters in Washington. He said the staff waits for the arrival of the PSARA's newsletter, the Retiree Advocate, edited by Parry. He praised Parry as a national leader of the senior citizen movement.
Parry's family was there, including his daughter Naomi, his son Jon and his brother Tom who told the crowd of their childhood and youth together, Will's years in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II and his excellence as a high school and college scholar and athlete.
Jeff Johnson, assistant to the president of the Washington State Labor Council, spoke of Parry's affiliation with the Communist Party of Washington State, the Pension Union and the Washington Commonwealth Federation that "became so strong they elected a Communist to the legislature" during the 1940s.
Parry was targeted in the Red Scare of the 1950s, Johnson continued. "The Taft Hartley Act was passed and radicals were being purged from the labor movement. As Will said, 'They drove the radicals out and it took the starch out of the labor movement.'"
In recent years, the Washington Labor Council "honored him as a hero of the Washington State labor movement," Johnson concluded.
Bill Farris, president of AWPPW Local 817 at the corrugated box plant where Parry worked for many years, said, "He's an advocate for people who needed help, an advocate for the union. I've lost count of the number of picketlines I've walked with Will."
Lynn Domingo, an organizer with Legacy of Equality, Leadership, and Organizing, said she enrolled in a labor history course Parry was teaching at Shoreline Community College. "I was floundering, wondering where I was going," she said. "I have to thank you for the salvation you provided in that class."
Thurston Muskelly, board member of the Central Area Senior Center, praised Parry for his fightback against President Reagan's drive to "destroy public health." The center was facing bankruptcy and Parry spearheaded a fund drive that brought in $131,000.
Ron McGaha, a member of Machinists Local 751, recited a poem he wrote about Parry: "On his very first night, he rose up in bed and to his mother he said, ‘I'll nurse from the left, not from the right' ... Will taught us all in ways great and small, that progress always comes from the left, not the right." The room erupted in laughter and cheers.
Rebel Voices sang their ballad, Borderlines: "I lose my job to El Salvador where for fifty cents a day a woman sweats her life away and now they tell me she's my enemy" and the last line, "Someday our day will come around and we will stand and face our common enemy."
With his guitar slung over his shoulder, Parry thanked the crowd and echoed the appeal to get enough signatures to put the State Income Tax initiative on the ballot.
"I'm glad my birthday served as an excuse to get us all together," he said. It is a time, he said, to celebrate the unity and strength of the movement, "not the feeble strength of one."
Photo: Will Parry takes the podium with his guitar. Tim Wheeler/PW