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Friday, November 3, 2000

Ex-political boss Archer Parr is dead

Former judge was last of the family that ruled Duval County for decades

By Chris Neely , and Jeremy Schwartz
Caller-Times

SAN DIEGO - Archer Parr, a former Duval County judge and the last living politico in the county's Parr dynasty, died Thursday afternoon in Alice Regional Hospital after a lengthy stay.
   He was 75.
   His family said a cause of death had not yet been determined, but he had recently suffered from several health problems.
   While Archer Parr never cast as long of a political shadow over Duval County as his uncle George Parr or his grandfather, state Sen. Archie Parr, he was one of the most influential men in the county before convictions for perjury and stealing county equipment and services ended his political career.
   Even after he returned from prison for the perjury conviction, public opinion of him in the county remained good.
   "In my opinion the prison time didn't have any effect," said Ernesto Gonzalez, who helped set up the first post-Parr government after George Parr committed suicide in 1975. "He still had considerable influence."
   Duval County Judge E.B. Garcia said opinion about Archer Parr in the county always will be divided, but that more people liked the former judge than didn't.
   "He was a person always willing to shake your hand," Garcia said. "He knew everybody in Duval County and would sit and talk to you if he had time. He didn't put on airs."
   Archer Parr enjoyed great popularity among the poorer citizens of Duval County, a hallmark of Parr rule dubbed by some as the patron system of government.
   Elpidio De La Garza, a janitor at the Duval County Courthouse for 35 years, used to talk to Archer Parr in Spanish and remembers him as someone who always helped him when he could.
   "He was very friendly with the people, especially the poor people," De La Garza said.
   Archer Parr's popularity transcended political differences. Gonzalez, who has been critical of George Parr's regime and the Parr dynasty's style of government, remained friends with Archer Parr after Archer Parr returned from his more than three-year stint in federal prison.
   "Even through the political differences he respected me and I respected him," Gonzalez said. "He had a great impact on county government."
   Elizabeth Parr, who was married to Archer Parr from 1965 to 1969, said she remembers spending weekends at the family's ranch and watching car after car pull up with people asking for help.
   "It was a poor county, and Mexican-Americans were working hard," she said. "If they needed a doctor, they got to see a doctor. If they needed shoes and clothes, they got those, too. And that's everyone in Duval County."
   That's the side of the Parr story that seldom gets told, she said.
   "Everybody's always painted a black picture when there's a white picture, too," she said. "They were leaders and they were caring. They had compassionate hearts. (Archer) loved his people.
   If laws were broken, Elizabeth Parr said, they were broken for the good of Duval County's people.
   "The schools were excellent in the '60s, before Archer got indicted. Excellent. Everyone who was college material went to college."
   At one time, Archer Parr seemed poised to become the next Duke of Duval, the head of the Democratic political machine that ruled South Texas for generations.
   In the 1910s and '20s, Archer Parr's grandfather, the late state Sen. Archie Parr, ran the county's politics through intimidation, manipulation and outright fraud. But he befriended his constituents, who turned to the machine for help, and won their undying support.
   Archie Parr's power base faced a threat in 1914, when a preliminary audit of county records found 14 kinds of illegal financial activities. Before a grand jury could return indictments, the courthouse - and the financial records inside it - burned to the ground on Aug. 11, 1914. He remained in the Senate until 1934.
   By the time Archie Parr died in 1942, his son, George Parr, had taken over the family dynasty, despite serving time for tax evasion in the '30s. After an appointment by his father to county judge and, later, a presidential pardon from Harry S. Truman that allowed him to re-enter the political arena, George Parr kept the machine's wheels greased.
   "There was money taken out of the till and given to the people," Archer Parr said in a later interview. "We gave cash so they could do what they wanted to do."
   George Parr was at the helm when, a week after Lyndon Johnson had lost his 1948 Senate bid to Coke Stevenson by 114 votes, a recount in Jim Wells County's Alice Precinct 13, near the Duval County line, found 202 additional votes for Johnson. Those voting records, recorded in alphabetical order and in different colored ink from the others, disappeared soon after Johnson had been declared the winner.
   George Parr continued to lead the county, until April 1, 1975, when he committed suicide amid drawn-out legal battles, including a conviction for mail fraud.
   By all rights, Archer Parr, county judge from 1959 to 1975, should have taken over the machine at that point. Instead the same legal troubles that involved George Parr, sent Archer Parr to federal prison where he served three years and four months of a 10-year sentence.
   "I was a bad boy and they slapped me and put me in the corner and then, when it was finished, they said, 'You're a good boy again,' " Archer Parr said in 1994.
   And in 1978, he was convicted of stealing county equipment and services, given 10 years' probation and banished from Duval County and its politics.
   "His last few years he was more inclined to stay at the house, maybe go and have coffee with friends," said longtime friend Joe Harney.
   "He's not what the books make him out to be. He was just a very ordinary guy."
   Elizabeth Parr said she hopes Archer Parr will be remembered for all the good he brought to Duval County.
   "He had a conscience," she said. "I think he inherited a system that was run a certain way, and that was helping the people.
   "There's always another side to every story. What is the saying, 'Judge not lest ye be judged?' Because it could happen to you."
  
  




Staff writers Chris Neely and Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 886-3794 or by e-mail at neelyc@caller.com

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