The Biggest Funeral Manassas has Ever Seen…

Saturday April 1, 2006 was a day that sparked memory, reflection on the past, consideration of the present, and …and it all happened during the biggest funeral Manassas has ever seen.

Some might quibble with that description. Caton Merchant’s funeral in 1983 was huge, perhaps the first one in local memory where the potential viewing turnout was large enough to hold the event in a church instead of the more cramped confines of a funeral home. But even if a few more folks attended Caton’s, more attendees came from farther away to this one, so I’ll give the edge to Harry.

That would be the late Honorable Harry Jacob Parrish. Harry died on 3/28/2006 after a struggle with pneumonia and in the wake of several years of declining health. But this was more than a normal death…Harry was a former town councilman, the last mayor of the Town of Manassas, the first Mayor of the City of Manassas, and a twelve term member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He wove this record of service in and around being a decorated aviator in World War II, Korea, and again in Vietnam, building a successful business, and raising a loving family with his wife of 62 years, Mattie.

If George Round created Manassas, then Harry was the one who made it big. He was the guiding hand behind the creation of Lake Manassas, giving the town a stable source of water. He pushed through the creation of the Manassas regional airport. These foundation blocks caused IBM to locate a plant near Manassas, and under the laws of the time the town was able to annex the land and make IBM part of the town. Manassas to become a city in 1975…all through the guidance of Harry Parrish.

Harry was elected to the Virginia House of delegates in 1981. He died holding the position of chairman of the House Finance Committee, the body tasked with raising revenue for the state. Harry was a guiding force behind the brokered agreement of 2004 that passed the Mark Warner tax increase. Harry suffered opprobrium for this, including a primary challenge in 2005. But Harry was no stranger to controversy. His efforts to make Manassas an independent city stirred up significant opposition in Prince William County, which probably led to his defeat in his 1979 candidacy for the House of Delegates. His Manassas backers voted “single bullet” in 1981 and caused hurt feelings with the party in the eastern portion of the county, and the above mentioned budget controversy left a lot of folks who only knew him tangentially either praising him for his forward thinking bipartisan spirit or cursing him as being a “Republican in Name Only”.

But today was a day for remembering, so I took my 81 year old dad to the Grace Methodist Church over an hour in advance of the service to be sure we had seats and parking. The Commonwealth decided my father can no longer operate a motor vehicle, so now we have reverse reenactments of the days he took me to Boy Scouts, Little League, and the like.

We arrive just past 1230 for the 1400 service, and secure a seat in the back of section five. The church has six sections of pews, with sections three and four being reserved for VIP’s. By good fortune we encounter Jackson Payne, former Old Town Dentist (and licensed physician) whom we have not seen for many years. Dr. Payne and dad-a retired pediatrician-spend the time before the service discussing a rainbow of subjects ranging from the current inadequacies in health care, who had moved where, and that old standby-what was the real cause of the American Civil War?

I sit and watch a remarkably precise honor guard from the Manassas Police Department watch over the flag draped coffin. My time is filled watching the church fill. I see people I have not seen for years-Marge Day of Two Days Gifts (her store closed on a Saturday for the very first time in over forty years) and her daughter Katie, Rob Sturm, Ms. (debbie? Donna?)Balboni and a host of Old Town Business folks. The members of the Colgan family, all looking so similar as to be readily recognizable a group as a flock of identical ducks. Former Manassas GOP Chair John Gregory and his lovely wife Angela, trapped in her wheelchair by the onslaught of Parkinson’s Disease-the sadness of the recent death of their only son Scott on 2/14/06 shows on their faces. Former mayors Bob Browne and John Weber, as well as Marvin Gillum, long time friend and former baseball teammate of Harry’s, also a former Mayor.

Since we arrived early, we are surrounded by wildy varying conversations as the church fills…the subjects ranging from movies to sports to-who’d a thunk it-politics.

My father told me years ago that in any endeavor there are three groups of people. One group is in the know, feels no need to show their knowledge, and generally remain silent on the subject. The second group knows what they know and how much they don’t know, and talk some and ask lots of questions. Members of the third group know little on the subject, yet insist on showing their ignorance by voicing loud and uninformed opinions and assertions in an effort to appear knowledgable. Such a person sits behind me, at various times insisting the next House Finance Committee chair will be a democrat then later that Speaker Bill Howell will be the next chair.

As the locals fill the church and conversation swirls, the VIP’s make their entrance. The list-or whom I recognize from my seat-is long and distinguished. From the Virginia State Senate comes Creigh Deeds, John Chichester, and enough senators to comprise a quorum. From the House of Delegates one sees Speaker William Howell, the green jacketed members of the House Finance Committee, and an assortment of Northern Virginia delegates of both parties from Vince Callahan to (I think) David Bulova. Many came up by bus from Richmond for the event. Joining them are former delegates Jack Rollison and Jack Rust, while sitting among the regular folks with his wife is Selwyn Smith, former Prince William County Commonwealth Attorney, State Senator, Va. Director of Public Safety, and Circuit Court Judge.

Then come the big dogs…first Governor Tim Kaine and his two-man security detail. Congressman Frank Wolf and his wife arrive soon after. Not much later comes Senator George Allen, and just as the service began former Governor Mark Warner arrives, careful to claim a seat in the VIP section but at the opposite end of the pew from George Allen.

The service is like most funerals I have attended, only longer. Over 500 people fill the sanctuary, complementing the over 500 who attended the viewing the night before. There is an unmistakable sense of longing but of appreciation for a life well spent. There had to be one glitch-there always is at an event like this. The sound system is inadequate, and those of us not sitting right in from of the speakers hear static, garbled oratory, and wonder what the various speakers said that was so funny…

The initial speaker represents the (I think) 765 Air Group. He speaks of Harry’s skill as a pilot and a leader, and recites John Gillespie Magee’s poem “High Flight”:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Senator Chuck Colgan praises his late friend’s devotion to community, to finding creative solutions to insoluble problems, and a lifetime love of his wife Mattie and to flying airplanes. Colgan recounted that as a young man Harry wanted to “buzz” Manassas, but the opportunity never arose…until one day when time and opportunity allowed Harry to fly from Pittsburgh, PA to York, PA by way of Manassas. Harry got a visual read on Va. 28, and followed it into Manassas, and flew in over Church Street at less than 500 feet elevation. Harry forgot it was Sunday, and was surprised to look back and see all the church doors opened up as folks came sprinting out to see what was going on…

Speaker Howell speaks next, praising Harry as a teacher and mentor in the General Assembly, and how Harry taught Howell not just the nuts and bolts of state finance but the importance of getting along personally with those you disagree with. Howell then looks at Governor Kaine, and says “I’m still working on that, Governor!”

Marvin Gillum recollects their days of youth, playing baseball together in high school (comprising two corners of an infield that had Caton Merchant and Harry’s future brother-in-law R.C. Hayden playing in the middle). Marvin spoke movingly of the 62-year marriage of Harry and Mattie, who Marvin stated is still the prettiest girl in Manassas. He spoke of a little remembered incident when Harry was still a city councilman. There was a matter of some importance for the six man council to vote on, a matter Harry had proposed, argued for, and shepherded to the edge of adoption. The Mayor, a man who served for 43 years as a tie breaker, mentioned to Harry while other discussing business that he hoped one day to be able to cast a vote a vote in council on a matter of substance. When the voting on this issue took place, Harry voted “No”, allowing the Mayor to cast the decisive vote in favor of the motion.

The minister offers his thoughts, and reads a letter from Hal Parrish. We sing “It is Well with My Soul”, and “Amazing Grace”, and the time comes to leave for the cemetery. As they roll the coffin down the aisle, followed by pallbearers both official and honorary, I notice the weathered, calloused hands of servicemen rise slowly to their brows to salute their comrade on his final march.

As we leave I look around at the crowd, a living history of the town I grew up in. I ponder what brought all of them out today. I wondered whether they felt, as I did, that Harry’s death marked a day of transition for Manassas. I don’t know what that future holds, but assuredly it’s foundation is the life work of Harry Parrish.

I guess the day is best described by Jackson Payne. As he spoke to my father before the service, two gentlemen well past their three score and ten, each spoke lovingly of their late spouses, both of whom had passed at least twenty years ago. Dr. Payne said, “I still miss her, but I was lucky to have her for as long as I did.” My father nodded in assent.

I imagine the same goes for Manassas…we were lucky to have Harry for as long as we did.

God Bless You, Harry Parrish. Vaya Con Dios, mi amigo.

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3 thoughts on “The Biggest Funeral Manassas has Ever Seen…

  1. Bwana, an absolutely wonderful report. I was most touched by the comment about “re-enactments” with your father ….

    You seem to know Manassas people well. Do you know Jean Altman, wife of Lindsay Altman? She was my first grade teacher, the beautiful lady who taught me to read.

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