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South Kingstown man, World War II veteran celebrates 100th birthday

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Brightview Commons resident Richard Parker receives a toast from friends and family during his 100th birthday party at the senior living facility Tuesday afternoon.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Author, painter, advertising ‘Mad Man,’ soldier, father — these are just a few of the words used to describe Richard Parker in his 100 years of life.

The South Kingstown man, who celebrated his milestone birthday on Tuesday, was an assistant to fashion icon Coco Chanel. A young Parker, RISD graduate, worked with Chanel in the 1950s as she opened her New York showroom.  

A slim and tall man with a mop of white hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Parker, dressed in a brown sport jacket, tie, tan slacks and comfortable shoes, sat in the activity area at his home, the Brightview Commons senior living community.

In between singing “Happy Birthday” to him, giving gifts and eating cake, Parker’s friends and family came up to him one at a time, took a seat next to him and shared a few private words. They caught up on current events, remembered old times or simply wanted to hear a story of his fascinating life.

Down the hall from the festivities, about 40 of Parker’s paintings were on display – many of them seaside scenes of boats and beach homes, or farm settings. There’s one of Kingston Station and a couple of more somber illustrations of soldiers.

Parker is the oldest surviving World War II veteran in South Kingstown, one of a vanishing breed.

He cut short his studies at the Rhode Island School of Design after three years to enlist in the Army when Uncle Sam needed soldiers in World War II. By the time he was deployed to the Pacific as an infantry squad leader with 12 men under his command, the war was ending.

Instead, Parker and his men were assigned to Wakayama and Osaka to deliver food to the Japanese and confiscate their military equipment.

Returning to the states after three-and-a-half years in the infantry, Parker earned his degree in advertising design from RISD. He moved to New York, getting a foothold in the fast-paced Manhattan advertising world while also starting a family.

A freelance artist, he worked on projects for Revlon and retail stores before landing the coveted position with Chanel.

He was creative director of the new Chanel Perfume Showroom in New York, a showcase of Chanel creativity. Much more than a job or an assignment, he got to work directly with Mademoiselle Chanel.

As a ‘Mad Man,’ in the 1960s and 70s, he worked at two major New York agencies: BBD&O, where he managed the account for DuPont, and Bozell International, as vice president and account supervisor for Lee Jeans, the American Association of Railroads and the A-10 Thunderbolt anti-tank aircraft.

In fact, Parker developed a friendship with neighbor Eleanor McSally over the A-10.

“I have a model of the A-10, I didn’t know anything about it,” McSally, sitting next to Parker, said.

But he recognized the model instantly, and the two became friends.

“She tells me when to go to dinner and all kinds of good things,” he said. “She’s very helpful to me.”

Why would McSally have a model of the A-10?

“Her daughter is Senator McSally,” Parker said. Martha McSally, a Republican, was U.S. senator from Arizona in 2019 and 2020. She’s also the first U.S. woman to fly in combat and also the first to command a fighter squadron, flying the A-10.

Later in his career, Parker teamed up with textile giant J.P. Stevens, which hired him to create promotional campaigns. They included a tie-in with the NFL that ran for seven years and movie tie-ins with Warner Brothers on “Camelot” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Finian’s Rainbow.”

As head of fashion fabric advertising there, Parker created a textile dictionary, and produced Broadway-style musical fashion shows for retailers at major trade events.

Some of Parker’s family attended Tuesday’s birthday event at Brightview, including his son Eric, who marvels at his dad’s long life and how much he’s experienced.

“He went through the Depression and the war and post-war,” Eric said. “He became a writer and painter after he retired.”

State Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee presented Parker with resolutions from the House of Representatives.

McEntee met Parker in 2015 while running for office.  

“He wrote a fabulous letter to the editor for me. He knocked on doors and gave out campaign literature,” she said. “Every year he rides in the parades with me. I’m forever grateful. When we talk about the ‘Greatest Generation,’ we are talking about people like Richard Parker.”

State Sen. Susan Sosnowski and McEntee also gave Parker citations from the Rhode Island congressional delegation and other state officials.

Though Parker was born in Everett, Washington, his father was a Massachusetts native and the family came to Rhode Island in the 1920s when he was 3 years old. He has ancestors dating back to Colonial times, and though much of his professional career was spent in New York, Parker retired in the 1980s and returned to Rhode Island, settling in one of Narragansett’s oldest homes. A widower by that time, he married Ann Lewis, also an artist, and the couple took many painting trips to Europe, Asia and Latin America.

He was chairman of the Docent Council at the Museum of Art at RISD, and was a docent for 25 years. Locally, he’s painted murals for various exhibits at the South County Museum and was a member of the Little Rest Readers.

In retirement Parker further developed his love for the written word and fused it with his role as a historian. Since age 84, he’s penned dozens of articles for newspapers, including The Independent and the Providence Journal, and he’s authored several books.

“The Improbable Return of Coco Chanel” is his firsthand account of his time with the French fashion maven. He also turned his attention to his time in the service with “Pacific Memories: War and Peace in Far Away Places,” which was published earlier this year.

He’s already at work on another book: “The Great Benin Massacre.” The book details what became of African artifacts seized by British expeditions to the Kingdom of Benin in 1897.

“It’s about art in Africa,” Parker said. “It’s something I’d gotten into for quite a few years. The art which people thought was just folk art is worth millions of dollars.”

In fact, Parker was at work on the book well into the evening on Monday.

“I’m keeping busy. It keeps me going,” he said.

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