âThe sound of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has changed the way listeners connect to music, âsaid Donna Parsons, who was a lecturer at the University of Iowa School of Music and an expert on pop music, the Beatles in particular. âIts revolutionary status was rooted in the nature of experimentation and the science of sound, creating an unmissable cultural cornerstone. (Photo by Tim Schoon / University of Iowa)
IOWA CITY – May 18, 2018 – The day after the damning appeal that her little sister, longtime University of Iowa professor Donna Parsons, died suddenly at the age of 51 after a short illness – Don Parsons and his wife visited his apartment in Iowa City.
He noticed a notice board in the kitchen of the beloved lecturer – who was known on campus for her pop culture classes like “World of Beatles”, “Women Who Rock” and “Harry Potter and the Quest for Enlightenment “.
“And on that there were letters and thank you cards from alumni, telling her how much they appreciated her for all of her classes,” Don Parsons told The Gazette. “She always seemed to relate to her students on an individual level.”
Donna Parsons spent 33 years at IU before her untimely death, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music, then a doctorate before joining the staff as a lecturer on popular music and culture. Its major conferences have acquired legendary status, filling up in just a few hours and forming waiting lists.
“But yet these cards say, ‘I felt you were talking to me,'” Parsons said of the notes he found hanging in his sister’s kitchen.
Although Donna Parsons is gone, her legacy will not be forgotten thanks to a new “Donna Parsons Arts and Politics Lecture Series” supported by the UI Public Policy Center, a research center aimed at empowering policymakers and public information “to make our lives and communities thrive.”
The center has used lectures – like the one Parsons gives – for years to engage people with different views and perspectives on difficult and culturally relevant topics, according to center director Pete Damiano. Often this brings them to an intersection of art and public policy – broadly defined – making a series of lectures honoring Parson’s memory “a perfect fit.”
âIt both commemorates Donna’s memory, but also highlights the significant overlap between the arts and public policy,â Damiano said.
Earlier this fall, the center planned to announce its first Donna Parsons lecture and the first recipient of the Donna Parsons Arts & Policy Award recognizing contribution to the arts – but the event had to be postponed due to unforeseen circumstances. The organizers are now making plans for the spring.
Don Parsons said the lecture series – drawing big names to tackle culturally and socially relevant issues – is a perfect way to honor his sister’s legacy.
“She died too young,” he said. “For me, it would be a gift for her children – for the students – for these guest speakers to come and speak at the university.”
The family also engaged part of Parsons’ estate to establish two scholarships.
âShe didn’t have a bad bone in her body, she was soft until the end,â her brother said. âAnd everything she did was for her students. She was still working and thinking, âWhat can I do to improve the class? “What other classes could I put in place that I could possibly teach?” “
Its goal was to connect students and the things they enjoy to the larger world they lived in and launched into. And Parsons found a vehicle for it in The Beatles – a band that has served as a common thread through his life.
‘Science Sgt. Pepper’
When Donna Parsons was born in 1966, her older brother was already jamming on “The Fab Four” and her fandom rubbed off on her little sister.
âShe grew up like my girlfriend,â he said. âWe did everything together. Played in the yard. And listened to records.
Because Don Parsons was 5 years older, he had read all the Beatles books and knew all the background stories and would share his point of view as they listened.
âUsually we would play them in the morning before going to school,â he said. âWe would get up, wash our hair or take a shower, and I would put a record on the stereo while we had breakfast and got ready for school. And if I knew the context behind the song, then I would tell him.
Like the iconic “Blackbird”.
âIt’s not a bird,â he said. âThis is a young woman.
He explained that the term “bird” is English slang for “young woman”, and therefore a black bird is a black lady. And Paul McCartney wrote the song about racial tensions at the time.
“It was in favor of desegregation,” he said.
And that knowledge – and that way of looking at popular culture – paved the way for Donna Parson’s musical legacy at UI. Much of his research and teaching focused on the Beatles. She made trips to Liverpool, visited the Red Gate outside Strawberry Field, and walked down Abby Road.
She filled the walls of her office with Beatles paraphernalia and was working on a forthcoming book. In 2017, Parsons gave a âThe Science of Sgt. Pepper âas part of a series sponsored by the Des Moines Science Center.
And she also taught classes on other musical legends and Harry Potter.
Her fandom would infiltrate her teaching, and it was contagious, according to her friend and colleague Katie Buehner, director of the UI Rita Benton Music Library.
âShe always had this very broad knowledge of the material she was teaching,â Buehner said. âWith the Beatles class, only his personal status as a Beatles fan would stand out very strongly. So there was always an equally enthusiastic joy for the subject she was teaching, and the students clung to it.
Parsons taught students the 1960s through The Beatles. She taught them to interpret poetry. She taught them to pursue their passions, Buehner said.
âShe’d say, here’s something you really like or something you’re really interested in, and it doesn’t seem to fit the academy, but here’s how it can,â she said. “She taught them that they can really love something and learn a lot about it at the same time and not twist it for them.”
Don Parsons recalled his sister’s memorial where people were invited to approach a microphone and share a memory. A young student approached and cried as she spoke.
âShe just said that Donna treated her like an equal and always supported her,â he said. “And she was so grateful that she got it.”
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