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Author gives 'legendary local' his due

| Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, 12:18 p.m.
Louis B. Ruediger | Leader Times
Elmer Parks is pictured in his North Buffalo home, Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. Parks will be featured in a book written by Joann Cantrell called, 'Legendary Locals of Pittsburgh.'

It's not often a man becomes a legend in his own time.

But Elmer Parks, 74, of North Buffalo has done it through his work as a teacher and administrator helping to turn around a low-ranking South Side Pittsburgh elementary school in the early 1980s.

His work has earned him a place in an upcoming book, “Legendary Locals of Pittsburgh,” by Joann Cantrell for Arcadia Publishing.

“I was positive I could turn the school around,” he said.

And he did.

Parks retired in 2001 after working as a teacher and administrator for more than 38 years. When he started there in 1982, Phillips Elementary was ranked last among 60 Pittsburgh elementary schools.

“Within three years, the school earned an A+ award from Instructor Magazine,” he said. “In 75 years of existence, no Pittsburgh school had ever been selected as an A+ school.”

The turnaround came from building positive relationships among parents and teachers through parent volunteer programs.

“It didn't take long for us to have the highest number of volunteers (in the district). Parents realized teaching was a hard job and teachers gained respect for parents because volunteers did a variety of tasks,” he said.

Parks also implemented a team-building approach among teachers.

He said he was always a proponent of positive reinforcement, celebrating every student's birthday with a card, and inviting parents and family members to events honoring students for achievements in academics, attendance and behavior.

“Many days we had standing room only,” he said.

Parks came to be featured in Cantrell's book because of his connection with volunteers and staff from the Wexford Good Samaritan Hospice program, some health problems, and a bit of serendipitous timing.

Parks has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and suffered two heart attacks and an infection from a case of double pneumonia last year.

Doctors initially gave him a week to live, but he credits hospice care for his survival beyond the 400-day mark.

While in hospice care, Parks started to share some of his memories, Good Samaritan Hospice nurse Becky Mattioli said.

“He has such a story,” she said.

That's when Mattioli told Parks about the Good Samaritan Hospice volunteer-run program called the Life Story Project.

After attending a one-day hospice training, volunteers work at their own pace interviewing, writing a person's life story, and creating finished copies for the person and their family members.

It lets them know their life mattered, Good Samaritan volunteer coordinator Erin Middleton said.

Although Parks said he was initially hesitant about enrolling in the Life Story Project, he eventually agreed to it and was connected to Cantrell, a volunteer writer in the program.

Cantrell, who happened to be working on her book at the time, soon realized Parks would be a perfect subject for “Legendary Locals of Pittsburgh.”

“The book features well-known celebrities, but also unsung heroes,” Cantrell said.

Between February and April of last year, Cantrell gathered up photos and records and verified Parks' professional achievements for the Life Story Project and also for her book, which will be released on Monday.

“Mr. Parks made a lasting impact on people in Pittsburgh,” Cantrell said.

Parks plans to attend a book signing with Cantrell from 1 to 3 p.m. Jan. 25 at Barnes & Noble, Cranberry Square Shopping Center, 1000 Cranberry Square Drive, Cranberry Township.

For more information about the Good Samaritan Hospice Life Story Project, or about becoming a hospice volunteer, call 724-933-8888.

Brigid Beatty is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303 or bbeatty@tribweb.com.

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