Back in 1986, just after he quit his administrative post at Hughes Aircraft in El Segundo, John J. Parsons experienced a metamorphosis that was “almost biblical,” he said.
While at Hughes, Parsons had zoomed up the corporate ladder, progressing from the Data Systems Group, where he worked in quality assurance on defense-related optics (infrared equipment, laser ranger finders); purchasing, where he “traveled like crazy” all over the world; and heading an engineering department with $100 million worth of contracts.
Despite loving the work, especially solving critical engineering issues, something was missing, Parsons, 59, said during an interview at in South Redondo—the best place to meet a man constantly on the go.
“There’s a saying, ‘Look at the birds and the bees; neither do they toil nor do they reap, yet they are taken care of,’" he said as he settled back in one of the big armchairs scattered around the coffee house. "And so, I stopped worrying about where I was going to be in the next five or ten years.”
Rather than defining himself in terms of his job or how much money he was going to make, Parsons longed to be of value to his community—the reason he and his wife, Mary Ann, a special-ed teacher, moved from Playa del Rey to Redondo Beach.
“In a small community like Redondo, you can know the mayor, the city council, the chamber and school board members,” he said. “In Los Angeles, you might one know one school board member—not all—and you can’t make much of an impact.”
The sizeable man with the sizeable reputation for accomplishing things has made an impact, all right. And not just in Redondo Beach, but all over the South Bay.
The former Redondo councilman (1999-2007), who twice chaired the city’s , was a major catalyst in retaining the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, preserving the 310 area code, and saving the beach cities millions in insurance costs through the Independent Cities Risk Management Authority.
And that’s just a drop in the bucket.
In terms of his contributions to the city, , the president and CEO of the Redondo Chamber of Commerce, called Parsons “an icon in Redondo Beach. You name it, he has been involved.”
Recipient of a dozen or more awards, Smeltzer said, Parsons even has one named in his honor. The John J. Parsons SBACC Business Citizenship of the Year Award is given by the South Bay Association of Chambers of Commerce, a group he headed in 1996. (Smeltzer was this year’s honoree.)
If you can think of a local group or association Parsons hasn’t either headed, founded, or belonged to, especially if it benefits local businesses, it probably doesn’t exist—the reason Parsons was selected for Patch's Greatest Person Series.
When Parsons was presented with the Business Advocate of the Year Award in 2005, Jacki Bacharach, the Executive Director of the South Bay Council of Governments, said Parsons was able to work so "tirelessly" for projects like saving the air force base because "he just seems to have more hours in his day than the rest of us.”
After Parsons left the aerospace industry and settled in Redondo, he launched a whole new career in real estate, mainly because he could create space in the day for community service. He's spent the last 20 years with Horrell Realtors, something he had to abandon last August after he was rehired by South Bay Workforce Investment Board (SBWIB).
Parsons had previously worked for the SBWIB in 2009 to connect STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students with businesses and vice versa.
"(SBWIB) has quite a successful record of getting grants for all sorts of successful (programs) for their constituency,” said Parsons, who in 2009 “was working with high school kids throughout the nine cities the organization serves … Hawthorne, Lawndale, Inglewood, Gardena, Carson, El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa and Redondo.”
In his current job as economic development manager of SBWIB’s Beach Cities One-Stop, a partially federally funded program located on Catalina Avenue, Parsons helps the out-of-work retrain and gain employment, which gives him yet another chance to utilize "his extensive business connections,” he said.
“One of the things we’re doing right now, for instance, is helping a lot of teachers who are getting laid off,” he explained.
One-Stop sends teachers back to college (Cal State Dominguez, Cal State Long Beach) to obtain additional credentials in subjects they lack adequate training in, such as math and science, “so, hopefully, when things turn around they’ll get hired back.”
Parsons’ drive to help others stems to some degree from losing his father at age 7. “I never had a father who was the Boy Scout leader, the little league coach, the Pop Warner coach, those kinds of things,” said Parsons, who wanted to fulfill those roles when he had children of his own.
He credits his late mother, left with four children (a daughter, 9, and three boys, 7, 5 and 2) after her husband was killed in an auto accident, for seeing to it her sons had the appropriate male role models growing up.
As a member of the Sea Scouts, for example, Parsons was imbued with a love of sailing by his scout leaders. "My dream was always to live on a boat and sail around the world," he said. "So in 1977, I bought a 30-foot sailboat and I lived on it for a couple of years."
Growing up in Westchester, he attended parochial schools, then went to West Los Angeles College for a year as he saved money to go to USC. Accepted in his sophomore year, he studied engineering for two years, “until the money ran out.” During that time he was working in the aerospace industry, and later continued his education at various places, including Cal State Northridge.
He met his future wife in 1973 on a Sea Scouting trip to Hawaii, where Mary Ann Lenoue was touring as part of the Westchester Lariats, a folk dancing troupe. They married in 1980 and moved to Redondo in 1987.
“The plan was to buy the house, build the white picket fence, train the dog, and then we would start the family,” Parsons said.
The couple purchased a home in North Redondo, where they still live, and had two daughters, Nicole (or Nikki), now 25, and Danielle, 22. Mary Ann Parsons, who taught in Carson for 20 years, is a special-ed teacher at Raymond Elementary in Watts.
Parsons' commitment to service started with the Redondo Jaycees, where he and his wife began to make the contacts that would propel him into a dizzying number of roles.
“I became president (of the Jaycees) and that introduced me to the Chamber of Commerce (and) I ultimately became president there,” he said.
Beginning in 1988, he spent three years on the General Plan Advisory Committee. The General Plan, which hadn’t been revised in 25 years, he said, “sets the roadmap for the goals and the priorities of the community. It tells you what you can build, what surface level the streets should be, what the parks should be like.”
But it was the South Bay Association of Chambers of Commerce (SBACC)—a group of 16 chambers—that got Parsons involved in what was “really critical to our area,” he said, the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo.
The Pentagon’s decision to close down bases all over the country, including the El Segundo base, was known as BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) and would have had serious ramifications to the entire South Bay.
Parsons took on the fourth and final round leading up to 2005, a “full-time commitment,” which cost him “a ton of money,” he said, since the effort left no time for real estate.
“I actually led the charge for the community to come together to keep the base open,” he said. “We raised a million bucks from the county, from local cities, from local aerospace companies and developers, and we basically hired four lobbying firms, one for the state of California, two for congress, and one here in LA to localize our grassroots efforts.”
Working with local, state and federal officials, Parsons was greatly impressed with former Congresswoman Jane Harmon, who had “been key” during the initial rounds to save the base in 1991, '93 and '95, he said, and “she was key again” in 2005.
"Jane was one of those few people in Congress who don’t hate each other,” Parsons said, lamenting the current state of affairs in Washington. “She was able to talk to people on both sides of the aisle.”
Parsons' in-depth knowledge of the aeorspace industry, combined with Harmon's, were crucial to the success of the effort, those who worked with them said at the time.
Now, however, additional BRAC rounds loom in 2013 and 2015, Parsons said. "It's scary."
Ask Parsons what he enjoys most, and it’s likely to involve young people, like Leader for a Day, a chamber event he chaired for nearly a decade that allows students to act in city government capacities.
Both of Parsons’ daughters experienced it twice.
“Leader for a Day is what got my youngest daughter interested in becoming a city manager,” Parsons said about Danielle, now a student at Cal State Sacramento and set to graduate with degrees in political science and business.
“Danielle is the vice president of finance for the student body and calls herself the CFO of a $6.8 million corporation,” he said, his bearded face breaking into a beaming grin.
Both girls attended , where Danielle was student body president, and went on to El Camino College before transferring elsewhere, Nicole to UCLA, where she graduated cum laude.
Completing her master’s degree and teaching credential at Loyola Marymount, Nicole is doing her student teaching at Redondo Union. “I just hope there’s a job for her there when she’s finished,” Parsons said, his pride in his girls evident.
As for Parsons, he likes the course he’s on, continuing with the South Bay Workforce Investment Board, the , the Los Angeles Commission for Public Social Services, the newly minted RBCC International Trade Committee, etc., etc.
In the meantime, he has completed all the graduation requirements for the Mayors and Council Members Academy (MCA). “The League of California Cities has ways of training and expanding the horizons of elected officials and mayors,” the former city councilman said, explaining how he met various leadership levels.
Does that mean he might run for mayor?
“I ran for mayor in 1997 and lost,” he said, adding that he had intended to run again following his City Council tenure in 2007. But his fight to save the air force base—and the fact that he would have been up against current Mayor Mike Gin—stood in the way.
“I really had to choose,” he said. “Mike is a great campaigner, and it would have taken a lot of work to beat him, and I couldn’t do both. I thought it was more important to keep the base open than become mayor.”
Although Parsons insists he doesn’t want to start campaigning for mayor again at age 60, which he will turn next month, one wonders if he might yet be persuaded to run for Mike Gin's vacated seat.