The leap into leadership

Parsons learns lifelong leadership skills at Illinois

Alan Parsons
Alan Parsons

More than once, Alan Parsons (BA, '71, history) has parachuted into the Panama Canal from a helicopter.

He did it multiple times as an Army Ranger in the 1970s, practicing jumps into water. At about 100 feet above the canal, you have to pull a pin that releases two of the four straps that meet at a buckle in the center of your chest, explains Parsons, a 1971 LAS alumnus. 

Then when you’re about 10 feet above, you just raise your arms and slide out of your chute and drop into the water,” he says. If all goes as planned, the parachute will drift away from you, rather than drop on your head.

Prior to his service in the Panama Canal Zone from 1974 to 1976, Parsons was a tank platoon and scout platoon leader for the 1st Infantry Division, and he was involved in major exercises in Europe in which his was the lead platoon in the lead battalion of the lead brigade. This required no small measure of leadership skills, and those traits were first forged during his years at the University of Illinois. 

In gratitude for these life lessons at U of I, Parsons has been a leading force with the chapter of the Illinois Alumni Association in Louisville, Kentucky, since 1981, earning him the 2014 LAS Quadrangle Award. This comes on top of receiving the Loyalty Award from the Illinois Alumni Association in 2007.

According to Parsons, he was clearly not leadership material in high school. It wasn’t until the spring semester of his freshman year at Illinois in 1967 that he even considered trying for a leadership position. 

His dormitory, the Florida Avenue Residence Hall (FAR), announced it was having an election, and he says, “A light bulb went off. I remember lying in bed and thinking I can do this. I can run for vice president.” 

Parsons not only ran, but he was elected vice president of FAR. And when the president stepped down a month later, he suddenly found himself president of a dorm of more than 1,000 students.

Parsons also developed leadership skills in the U of I ROTC program and in his job in the Student Affairs Office, where he became close to people such as Dan Perrino, the beloved dean of campus programs and services. In fact, Parsons says that people in the Student Affairs Office, such as Perrino, became like a family to him. 

Being the late ‘60s, this was also a time of turmoil on the Illinois campus. He was asked by the Student Affairs Office to gauge the mood of students, and he will never forget when the National Guard was called in during the spring of 1970 to manage Vietnam protests on campus. National Guard gathered on the west side of Sixth Street, while thousands of student protestors collected on the east side, a few of them playing football with rocks that were intentionally thrown long. 

During his senior year, Parsons got to travel across the state speaking on behalf of the university. And when he graduated in history from U of I in 1971, he was surprised to find himself named among the “Senior 100”—the 100 most active seniors.

“It was an endorsement of what I did,” he says.

He then spent several years at Fort Riley and went to Ranger School, which touts the motto, “Rangers lead the way!”

“The whole idea of Ranger school is to break you down physically and mentally and then have you prove to yourself that no matter how tired you are, you can do what you set your mind to do,” he says. “That stuck with me for a lifetime.”

After finishing his stint in the Panama Canal in 1976, he graduated magna cum laude in law from the University of Louisville in 1979 and became a specialist in tax law and employee benefits. He worked for several companies, the longest being with William M. Mercer, Inc., working on benefits programs with large companies. In 1981, he began his involvement with the Metro Louisville Illini Club, and he has served on the board or been an officer in the club ever since.

When he started with the Illini club, General Electric employed about 23,000 people in Louisville and was the largest employer of Illini graduates in the area, so the club thrived. He helped with Big Ten picnics and started a luncheon series and annual club meetings that brought in people such as a former U of I president, the former director of U of I’s Krannert Center of the Performing Arts, and legendary Illini basketball coach Lou Henson.

In addition to his involvement with the Louisville Illini club, Parsons served on the Board of Directors for the Illinois Alumni Association and joined the President’s Council in 1990. He was also a member of the U of I Friends of the Library Board from 2002 to 2005—the period when the library added its 10 millionth volume to the collection.

Parson’s love of the library stretches back to his undergraduate days when he switched from engineering to LAS. 

“Once I became a history major, I spent a lot of time in the library and discovered this jewel,” he says. “I was like a kid in a candy store. I’m not sure how else to describe it.”

But even more than the books, it was all about the people at U of I. 

When he did exercises in the Army, his platoon would operate completely on their own, miles ahead of the major formation, but he says he had the confidence to lead because he was “surrounded with great people.” Similarly, he says he was surrounded by great people at Illinois, “and that’s a special feeling.”

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Doug Peterson