Henry Lee Parker: a war hero, people person

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The first paragraph to the Associated Press story of Henry Lee Parker’s death earlier week reads: “Florence, Ala. — Henry Lee Parker, who played a role in the SMU football scandal that resulted in the NCAA shutting down its football program for two years, has died. He was 88.”

Accurate? Yes. An appropriate assessment of an 88-year life well-lived? No, not even close. Not at all.

We all make mistakes and the worst Henry Lee Parker made at SMU was following orders. At SMU, Parker and another native Mississippian, Bobby Collins, inherited a play-for-pay football program that went all the way up to the Texas governor at the time. You can argue they should have quit when they learned rules were being broken. On the other hand, if everybody quit who was breaking rules and paying players in the Southwest Conference back then, there would have been no Southwest Conference left.

But that’s not the point here.

My point today: Holly Springs native and Mississippi State grad Henry Lee Parker, who was married to the late Martha Anne Ferriss Parker of Shaw, lived a productive, at times courageous life.

Let’s start with this: After completing his freshman year at State, Parker enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II when he was but 19. He served as an aerial gunner in the 454th heavy bomber group, 738th squadron in southern Italy. His crew flew 35 bomber missions to most major cities in southern Europe. Parker was awarded six Bronze battle Stars, three Oak Leaf Clusters and a Presidential Citation for Bravery for flying repeated missions deep into Germany under heavy fire from Hitler’s air and ground forces.

Parker returned to State after the war, earned a degree in history and began a long career in coaching and administration at Corinth High in 1948. He also served as a head coach and history teacher at Natchez before returning to State as an assistant coach where he served with Johnny Majors. Later, he joined Majors at Pittsburgh where he was an integral part of the 1976 Pitt national championship team.

Majors did the eulogy at Parker’s funeral Friday just eight weeks after he also did the eulogy for Parker’s wife, Martha Anne Ferriss Parker, the sister of Mississippi baseball legend Boo Ferriss.

“Henry Lee leaves behind a world of friends,” Boo Ferriss said. “He was a people person and everybody loved Henry Lee.”

Ferriss was pitching for the Boston Red Sox when Parker was coaching football and baseball at Corinth. Parker called Ferriss and told him, “Boo, I believe I’ve got a player here who is going to make the Major Leagues some day.”

That player was Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Don Blasingame,  a 12-year Major League infielder.

“Henry Lee knew talent, baseball and football, when he saw it,” Boo Ferriss said.

Parker also spent a period of his career as an NFL scout. In fact, he was the chief of college scouting for the Saints when he hired Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Hamp Cook, the former USM football All-American and coach.

“Henry Lee was a special, special person and a really close friend,” Cook said. “We had a great working relationship and and we have been friends ever since. Anybody who knew Henry Lee is going to miss him.”

Henry Lee Parker and the late Ben Puckett were close friends, both members of Kappa Sigma fraternity (as was Boo Ferriss) at Mississippi State. Puckett and Parker, friends for nearly 60 years, died three hours apart on June 2.

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Memorials for Henry Lee Parker may be made to First Presbyterian Church, 224 E. Mobile Street. Florence, Alabama 35630, or Mississippi State University Foundation, Inc., P.O. Box 6149, Mississippi State, Mississippi 39762.

Memorials to Ben Puckett may be made to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum at 1152 Lakeland Drive, Jackson, MS 39216.

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