By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Thomas “Tom” Parkins, of Millville, Delaware, who served as Alexandria’s registrar of voters for more than a decade, died on April 11. He was 70.
Born on April 3, 1950 in Des Moines, Iowa to Dale and Shirley Parkins, Parkins’ path toward becoming an elected leader, city official, political thinker and union worker was defined from an early age.
His father, Dale, worked as a union leader in Detroit and, under Governor Harold Hughes, as the commissioner of labor in Iowa. Parkins’ uncle, Richard Greenwood, served as an assistant to International Machinists Union President William Winpisinger. Democratic union politics flowed through Parkins’ bloodstream, and he remained an educated and engaged political thinker even after he retired as the city’s registrar of voters in 2014.
“Both of us were union activists, both of us were political volunteers, but Tom was the one who really understood how elections worked, how government worked. I got my information from Tom, believe me,” Parkins’ wife Judy Parkins said.
Parkins spent much of his childhood in Winterset, Iowa before he and his family moved to Urbandale, Iowa where he graduated from Urbandale High School. He went on to attend Grand View University in Des Moines, but his college education was cut short by the Vietnam War.
Anticipating the draft, Parkins enlisted in the U.S. Army on April 4, 1969, the day after his birthday. Anyone who signed up for more than a year’s worth of service could get out early, so Parkins enlisted for 19 months, serving in the 11th Armored Cavalry on an armored personnel carrier.
Even in Vietnam, Parkins insisted on remaining educated and aware of the political goings on back home.
“Every single day he was in Vietnam, he got a copy of the Des Moines Register,” Judy Parkins said. “… Tom always had such respect for real reporters that did the work. He took that paper every day.”
Parkins returned to Iowa on Nov. 6, 1970 but didn’t end up graduating from college until 1989 when he received his B.A. from Drake University as a “20-year college senior,” Parkins would say. Like so many young men, Parkins was disillusioned by serving on the frontlines of a controversial war. He would go on to serve as the local co-chair of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Parkins possessed a deep love for history, politics, democracy and the Constitution of the United States. He worked on Democratic campaigns at the national, state and local levels and, according to friends and family, became something of an expert on election organizing.
“He was really smart and he probably knew more about politics than any other individual that I have ever known, and I was a lobbyist for almost 20 years,” Patti North, a family friend, said. “… But Tom understood politics on a really granular level. He knew the finer points of the party system and how you get out and vote in a particular precinct.”
Parkins served as chair of the Polk County (Iowa) Democrats from 1981 to 1982 before, in 1987, he was elected as the auditor and commissioner of elections in Polk County, a position he would hold for almost 10 years. Throughout his time in office, Parkins was a passionate advocate for expanding voter access.
“For him, in Iowa … making sure that people had an easy, accessible way to vote [was important],” Parkins’ daughter Casie Parkins said. “In Iowa, he worked on legislation that expanded early voting to satellite voting sites.”
The only thing Parkins loved as much as politics were the Iowa Hawkeyes. Even when he and Judy moved to Alexandria, Parkins remained committed to supporting his home state heroes. In Alexandria, the couple had a spare bedroom that Parkins made into a Hawkeyes shrine, filling it with his many pieces of memorabilia.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Parkins was a union man. He met his second wife, Judy, at a local union hall in Des Moines. The couple married on Labor Day at a local courthouse and held their reception at the International Machinists Union hall.
This was a second marriage for both Judy and Tom, and although bringing children together in a bonded family can often be a challenge, Parkins accepted his wife’s children, Lisa Connor and Marc Fitzgibbon, as his own without hesitation.
“When Tom and my mom got married when I was 14, and I felt like my brother Marc and I just hit the lottery because it never felt like he was a stepdad,” Connor said. “Right away, he was just easy and funny. … He treated us like we were his own. We were family right away.”
At the same time, he remained dedicated to his two daughters, Casie Parkins and Kelly Grunhovd, from his marriage to Patty Iogha.
“He was my person; he was my best friend,” Casie Parkins said. “We confided in each other. I lived to make him laugh, and I did, even if it was through a burn, if I had to mock him, tease him.”
Judy Parkins moved to Alexandria in 1991 for her job, and Parkins finished his final term as commissioner of elections before joining her.
Parkins’ commitment to democracy took him beyond the faded exterior of the Iron Curtain, to Bosnia and the former Soviet Union, where he served as senior election consultant for the International Foundation of Election Systems.
After returning to Alexandria, Parkins was appointed as the city’s registrar of voters and elections. During his tenure as registrar, Parkins implemented the national Voter Registration Act, the Help America Vote Act, which made provisional voting more systematic, and the Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, which made absentee voting more accessible for active military members or those living overseas. Parkins retired in 2014.
“He had a lot of energy and he was an excellent big picture decision maker and planner and not a micro-manager, so he was really easy to work with,” Anna Lieder, the current registrar of voters who previously worked as Parkins’ deputy before taking over the position, said. “He would come up with big ideas and things that he wanted to implement but then let people carry things out on their own.”
Parkins is remembered for his refusal to engage in partisan politics, despite his own well-known political leanings.
“He was very good at being the referee, as he sort of said,” Lieder said. “I think he took a lot of pride that when he retired both the Democrat and Republican party chairs both wanted to throw a retirement party for him. So, he felt like he had done things well.”
Parkins was known for his self-deprecating, sharp sense of humor. He loved to entertain people, especially his five grandchildren; his family still remembers the sound of his laugh echoing through their home.
“I can’t tell you how many times he’d get up in the morning and walk out with a goofy hairdo, I’d laugh at it and then we’d take a picture of it. We have so many pictures of him doing stuff that’s silly,” Judy Parkins said.
Outside of his job, Parkins was an avid golfer and could often be spotted at Greendale Golf Course in Fairfax before he moved to Delaware. After scoring a hole in one at Greendale, Parkins was awarded a “cheesy trophy” that he displayed proudly in his home, North said.
Parkins was an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups and always sought to better himself, to grow, as a husband, father and person, Judy Parkins said. He worked with a professional in Alexandria to deal with issues related to post traumatic stress from his time in Vietnam.
“One side of him was really funny and always entertaining people, but he was very self-reflective ,” North said. “It was important to be able to look at himself with honesty and a desire to always be growing and improving and knowing himself better.”
Parkins is survived by his wife, Judy Parkins of Millville, Delaware; mother, Shirley Parkins of Winterset, Iowa; two daughters from his first marriage to Patty Iogha, Casie Parkins of Washington D.C. and Kelly Grunhovd of Northwood, Iowa; Kelly’s husband Andy and grandchildren Andrew, Jackson and Avery; and two children from his marriage to Judy, daughter Lisa Connor, her husband Ashford and grandsons Traa and Marley; and son, Marc Fitzgibbon of Alexandria.