Richard William Parsons, a retired Baltimore County librarian who also spent nearly 50 years as a residential advocate for Towson, died of cancer Monday at his Woodbine Avenue home. He was 87.
Born in Victoria, British Columbia, he was the son of Thomas Parsons, a commandant of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Laura Lyons, a homemaker. He earned a bachelor's degree in Slavic languages at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and had a master's degree in library science from McGill University. As a young librarian, he drove, often in sub-zero temperatures, in a bookmobile converted from a Toronto transit bus. He also worked summers for the Hudson's Bay Company.
He became a staff member in the Brooklyn, N.Y., public library system, where he met his future wife, Jane Wallace Amos. While in New York, Mr. Parsons immersed himself in classical music and attended performances at the old Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall.
He joined the Baltimore County Public Library in 1962 and held the post of coordinator of adult services. A Baltimore Sun article published at his arrival said that the library was then "hopelessly overcrowded" and experiencing growing pains.
"I suffered a certain degree of culture shock when I moved from New York City to Towson in 1962," Mr. Parsons said in a 2006 Towson Times article. "I had never had a driver's license — the buses in New York went everywhere. I deliberately bought a house on Woodbine Avenue that was within walking distance of the library."
Charles W. Robinson, a retired director of the library, recalled bringing Mr. Parsons to Baltimore County.
"I hired him to build up the book collection for the first of our newly planned area branches, Catonsville," Mr. Robinson said. "Dick had a great knowledge of the important books published over the years and built up a great reference collection in Catonsville. At the same time, he got interested in local history — especially that of Towson, where he bought an old house. His interest and expertise were such that we put him in charge of our local history collection, giving him a good budget to buy local history stuff. At the same time, he became very involved in Towson activities and was the go-to guy for any information on Towson."
Colleagues said Mr. Parsons, who observed the rate that the library system was growing in the 1960s, grew apprehensive that Towson itself would be choked by commercial development. He became an advocate for his West Towson neighborhood after he saw Towsontown Boulevard widened and the development of a high-rise that became the Versailles apartment complex.
Mr. Parsons served three terms as president of the West Towson Neighborhood Association and was also co-founder and past president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations. He was also a past chair of the Towson Fourth of July Parade.
Douglas B. Riley, who served on the Baltimore County Council from 1990 to 1998, remembered Mr. Parsons as a well-read, sophisticated man who retained touches of his native Canada and his years in New York City.
"He was an outsider living in Towson," Mr. Riley said. "And yet, he knew everything about Towson. He was so irreverent that I always sat next to him at meetings. Yet he was never mean-spirited. He became one of my wisest counselors. We plotted, gossiped and laughed together. He was an affirming presence, but one who would tell me when I did right and who would tell me when I did wrong."
Michael P. Ertel, a friend and colleague, said, "He had an institutional memory of Towson and a lot of Baltimore County as well. Dick and others worked to draw a line of demarcation between downtown, commercial Towson and the neighborhood to the west. He did this at a time when some assumed that Towson would be commercialized from the courthouse west to Charles Street. He was a man who saw the big picture."
After retiring from full-time library work in 1991, Mr. Parsons worked for two years on a part-time basis. He then volunteered five days a week until late last year.
Much of his time was devoted to collecting and cataloging historic Baltimore County photographs. He was the co-author of the 1988 book "Baltimore County Panorama," which contained nearly 550 historic photos.
"We are interested in the photojournalism of everyday life," he said in a 2002 Sun article and recalled how on a coffee break one day, he learned that a Baltimore County resident, William Kenney, had taken hundreds of photos in the early 1900s. It was among the many collections he brought to the library and then made available to patrons.