In Opelika, it’s easy to find someone whose life has been impacted by Patsy Boyd Parker, either from her teaching, counseling or community involvement.
She’s inspired thousands of students and many consider her to be a second mother.
When schools began to integrate, she became the first Black counselor at Opelika High School where she continued her mission of loving her students and helping them pursue their dreams.
‘Like my mama’
Parker was born in Opelika in 1936 to Chinissa, who wrote for the Opelika Auburn Daily News and was a teacher, and William Boyd, who was a tailor.
Growing up during the time of segregation and later integration, Parker said nothing stopped her from getting to know everyone in Opelika no matter what race they were.
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She attended the all-Black high school, J.W. Darden, where she was a majorette, worked on the school newspaper and was involved in other school actives, and often hung out with white friend’s downtown in the middle of 8th Street.
“I guess it might seem strange, but I never really felt it because I was so involved as a young person,” Parker said referring to segregation. “I really didn’t think about it a whole lot. I wasn’t treated differently.”
One thing she remembers, though, is that she couldn’t sit on the bottom floor of the movie theater because it was designated for whites. If she went, she had to enter through a side door and sit in the balcony.
Parker graduated high school in 1953 at the age of 16, becoming one of the youngest graduates. Because her father passed away from a stroke, she waited to go to college and decided to work as a secretary for J.W. Darden High School.
A year later, she attended Alabama State University where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree, was named the Valedictorian of her class and met the man she would marry in 1957,William (Bill) A. Parker.
Parker also earned a Master of Education degree from Auburn University in 1970 and started the first Black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, at Auburn with 10 girls.
“I told Dean (Katherine) Cater, I said, ‘I’ve been looking on this campus, and you know what, we don’t have a single Black sorority here.’ I said, ‘Katherine, that is going to change as of this semester,’ and it did,” Parker said.
She said they used a guest room in one of the dormitories for meetings and whatever she wanted Auburn made sure she got it.
When schools started to integrate, Parker began working at Jeter School in Opelika. She transferred to Darden High School to teach junior and senior English and literature, and later was asked to teach at the white high school along with a hand full of other Black teachers.
“I did not want to go because I had done so much for my kids, but I ended up going,” she said. “It was interesting. Most people over there knew me anyway. When I got to the high school, to the white high school, I was not intimidated at all. I was Patsy Boyd Parker and everybody knew Patsy Boyd as a kid.”
She started teaching English classes and also became the first Black counselor of Opelika High School.
“(The school board) worked with the parents and we had one of the smoothest integrations of anybody in the South, I guess,” Parker said. “We had no problem with parents or the kids.”
She said those who didn’t want to integrate left.
Parker’s husband eventually became the first Black principal of Opelika Junior High School. Their daughter Nancy became the first Black Miss Opelika High School and their son Billy became the first Black president of the Key Club.
Parker also became the first female chairperson of the Board of Trustees of Alabama State University and served her community on the OCS Board of Education for 19 years and the Industrial Development Authority for 25 years.
She started working at Southern Union State Community College about 47 years ago as a teacher and still works there today as a counseling advisor helping students achieve their goals.
When asked why she chose the field of education, Parker said because of her mother, who taught for a few years in Clayton, Ala.
“My mother was in the field of education. I’ve always wanted to be just like my mama. She was strong, dignified,” Parker said. “She would tell me about teaching, she said, ‘Always love your children as if they were your own.’”
Parker’s mother would buy shoes for her students who had none and would fix up their hair too. Inspired by her mother, Parker found a way to show her love by guiding her students into college and future careers.
Cliff McCollum, a 2004 graduate of Opelika High School, didn’t have Parker as a teacher, but he still remembers the impact she had on his life and continues to have.
“Patsy is like a second mother to me,” McCollum said. “I’ve known her pretty much my entire life.”
McCollum said Parker refuses to give up on people. She made it her mission to help people find scholarships and ways to go to college, which she still does today.
“I think that there are people in this world that the Lord just puts on this earth to be encouragers. There’s a wonderful quote that was written by a great musical writer, Jerry Herman, and it’s ‘somebody who puts themselves last, so that you can come first.’ I think that’s Ms. Patsy to a tee,” McCollum said.
One day during high school, he remembers Parker asking him how college applications were going and recommended scholarships that ended up fully covering the cost to attend Auburn University.
He graduated from Auburn with a degree in English and later taught in Opelika City Schools and at Southern Union. McCollum said Parker was an influence that helped him get hired for both positions as she was on the OCS Board of Education and an employee at Southern Union.
McCollum is now the director of constituent services for the Baldwin County Legislative Delegation and has lived in Baldwin County for almost 10 years.
“If Ms. Patsy tells me to come home for something, I come home,” he said.
In July, 2022, she asked McCollum to speak at her husband’s funeral, and he accepted without hesitation.
No matter what is going on in Parker’s life, McCollum said she continues to be a “bright, shining ray of positivity.”
Rebecca Whatley Holder, a 1984 graduate of OHS, is another who considers Parker a second mother. Holder has known Parker her entire life, had her as a guidance counselor in school and was close friends with her daughter Nancy into adulthood.
Holder said she would not be where she is today without Parker’s leadership and mentorship. She described Parker as a confidant and her biggest cheerleader.
“She looked at each one of us individually and found our strengths and really zeroed in on what she thought, in college, would be the best fit for us and helped us direct where we were going,” Holder said. “(She) helped us set goals, helped us plan, taught us what we needed to be successful not only in college, but in life.”
Parker steered Holder to apply for several scholarships and encouraged her to consider a degree in education. Following the advice, Holder graduated from Auburn University and later earned a doctorate in educational leadership with a concentration in curriculum instruction.
Now, she teaches algebra 2 and pre-calculus at Auburn High School, and calls Parker frequently for advice or just to catch up.
“She really was like a mama bear that kinda drew you into her cave,” Holder said. “You’ve heard the saying, ‘It takes a village,’ and Ms. Patsy was definitely part of a village that helped raise all of us in Opelika.”