Noted for his rhododendrons, volunteerism, Dover’s Joe Parks dies at 94

Friday, April 2, 2010

DOVER — Joe Parks once said that he lived by the philosophy of his father, a minister.

“The world doesn’t owe you anything, you owe it,” Parks said.

Even in his last days, Parks was living that philosophy, even traveling by ambulance just to meet with representatives from the University of Southern Maine Arboretum to finalize plans to donate some of his famous rhododendrons.

“Both he and my mother felt very, very strongly that we weren’t just put here to sit around and do nothing,” said Kathryn Forbes, Parks’ daughter. “All of us were meant to make this a better place for everyone, not just ourselves.”

Parks died Wednesday night at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital at the age of 94.

It seems nearly all the major landmarks in the city have been touched by Parks — Henry Law Park, Garrison Hill, the Woodman Institute and several others all appear the way they do today because Joe Parks had something to do with it.

And most recently — in 2007 — Parks took the lead in a beautification project that transformed a long-neglected section of the downtown riverfront into a community garden dedicated in his honor.

He was more than just the namesake for the Joe B. Parks Riverwalk and Gardens, something that doesn’t surprise anybody that knew him.

“The idea was to bring a few rhododendrons onto the riverwalk,” said Beth Fischer, who coordinated the project for Dover Main Street. “It was nothing like it turned into.”

It started with Parks agreeing to transfer a variety of plants from his own backyard gardens. Then Parks agreed to help design the riverwalk. Soon, he was at the garden every weekend, digging holes, spreading mulch and instructing volunteers about how to plant and care for his prized plants.

“I would mention to people ‘If you see an older guy around with light hair and two dogs, that’s just Joe.’,” Fischer said.

The Joe B. Parks garden is easy to point to as Parks’ legacy in the city, and it is. But Fischer said his legacy created by the park is much more than a name, or a plant or a bench that wasn’t there before.

For nearly two years, Parks personally worked with Heather Fabbri’s horticulture class at Dover High School’s Career Technical Center as they designed and planted a Japanese garden on the riverwalk. First he judged several models presented by students. And when the first shovels hit the ground, Parks was there — with a car full of doughnuts for the students — to guide the class through the process.

“He understood some of the kids were not ones that were going to go on to be Rhodes Scholars, but there were things they could accomplish,” Fischer said.

It was that extra effort, to use his skills to shape the next generation, that Mayor Scott Myers said he always admired most about Parks.

“That was the greatest gift he gave to the city,” Myers said.

Since moving to New Hampshire in the early 1970s, Parks became known for his ability to hybridize warm weather and fragile plants, notably rhododendrons, to both sustain the New England environment and resist insects. He served as president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Rhododendron Society from 1994 to 1996 and received the silver medal award from the organization in 2006. Parks was also asked to register his garden with the Smithsonian Institution.

Although he is well known for his work in horticulture, Parks never took a single course in the subject and has worked most of his life in business and real estate, managing property and restoring houses around Dover. But the hobby was a part of his life since he was a child, drawing inspiration from a family farm in Oklahoma.

Parks began hybridizing plants while living in Virginia during the middle of the century, but his work picked up pace after moving to Dover. He began work on his garden, nestled among what was then dense forest, before construction on his Long Hill Road home was completed. The well-planned garden since expanded to a series of small gardens connected by a winding pathway.

That garden and the joining woods is where Moira Forbes, Parks’ granddaughter, spent much of her childhood and inspired her so much she wrote a story as a first-grader called “My Granddad’s Woods.”

“We were always doing things over there,” the now 36-year-old Forbes said. “He was always saying ‘Let’s go to the greenhouse, let’s plant something, let’s make something out of wood, let’s go catch a snake.’ I didn’t’ realize until I was older that most people’s grandparents weren’t as active. That always seemed normal to us that people’s grandparents ran around and did things every day.”

Parks was always busy, and it wasn’t just limited to gardening, Kathryn Forbes said. He spent much of his career working in data management and computing after attending what is now Oklahoma State University when researchers at that school development a computerized registration system using punch cards — in the 1930s.

He later went on to sell computers for RCA for several years.

“He’s been a computer user for 70 years or something,” Forbes said. “There couldn’t be many people like that around.”

Most recently, Parks discovered that he could use magnets to help ease some of his arthritis pain and could often be seen going about his day with bandage covered magnets attached all around his body. But Parks wasn’t content with just accepting that it helped. Instead, he began pouring over medical research about the theory and even said he wanted to find a way to start a trial to scientifically test his theory.

“Everything that came along interested him,” Forbes said.

And he wanted to explore it all, she said.

“He didn’t plan to grow old,” Forbes said.

The thing about Parks’ wide array of interests is that it allowed him to be something different to everybody he met — horticulturist, volunteer, teacher, writer, sculptor, Army major, state legislator, entrepreneur.

“He was a lot of things to a lot of people,” Forbes said. “The most important thing to me was he was my dad.”