David Russell Parnell was an unlikely politician. He was soft-spoken, not a self-promoter, and he voted his conscience, with little regard to Election Day, often crossing party lines with his support.
But those traits served Parnell, a Parkton native who died last week of lung cancer at age 85, strongly in the General Assembly, first as a representative and then later as a senator.
That doesn’t mean his causes were always popular. He was a leader in the 1980s to merge into one this county’s five school systems, an issue that sent residents into opposing corners and was only decided in favor of consolidation in a close and bitter referendum.
There are those who will say today that merger set back education in Robeson County, but we aren’t convinced. The problems that have lingered with our schools have always had more to do with personalities and politics than with consolidation. And there is no dispute that tens of thousands of this county’s children, mostly black and American Indian, have been given educational opportunities through consolidation that would otherwise not have been within their grasp.
Parnell wore many hats as a politician, first serving on Parkton’s town board, then becoming the town’s mayor. After being appointed to the state Highway Commission, he ran for the state House in 1974, winning the first of five terms. During his time in the House, he rose to chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. He then ran and won election to the Senate, where he served six terms. Parnell was also chairman of the Fair Sentencing Commission in the 1990s, a body established to ensure that our judicial system metes out punishment fairly and blindly.
When he exited the assembly in 1997, Parnell, a lifelong Democrat, was its longest-serving member, evidence that the folks back home approved of what he was doing.
But politics was a single spoke on Parnell’s wheel. He was also an Army veteran, having attended West Point, graduated from Wake Forest College with a business degree, and then founded Parnell Oil Company, which he was president of when he retired in 2001. He was a conservative Democrat in the General Assembly, often working on behalf of businesses.
He was also a family man, married to the same woman, Bobbie, for 62 years, and a man of faith. A longtime member of Parkton Baptist Church, where he served as chairman of the Board of Deacons, he taught Sunday school for more than 50 years.
With his death, Parnell gives us a final chance to recall and to applaud his contributions to Robeson County, and to the state. His was a life of achievement.