Fritz and Ginny Parker make their mark on the local arts landscape with behind-the-scene bequests
Flip on the light in Fritz and Ginny Parker’s bathroom and you might forget where you are for a second. Playbill covers from the couple’s trips to Broadway and off-Broadway theaters plaster the walls of the small space, evoking the feel of a backstage dressing room on Broadway rather than a water closet in Syracuse.
Their homemade bathroom wallpaper is only one example of how they surround themselves with the arts. The couple has two children—a son and a daughter. Their son lives outside Philadelphia and is married to a former classical pianist. Ginny and Fritz’s grandchild is nearly 4 and already shares Ginny’s love for theater. “When you say, ‘What does the cat say in Peter and the Wolf?’ he can sing the tune,” Ginny boasts.
The zeal the Parkers show for the arts at home and their enthusiasm for arts organizations in Syracuse are a case of marital symbiosis. Ginny has been serving on the board at Syracuse Stage for almost 15 years, and Fritz has been on the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra board since the late 1970s. They also sit on boards for an array of other non-profit organizations, including the YMCA Arts Branch, the Upstate Medical University Foundation, the SUNY ESF College Foundation and the Syracuse Children’s Chorus.
Because of the Parkers’ commitment to philanthropy, which is more intense than that of many other volunteers, they are indispensable to the livelihood of Syracuse arts organizations, and to their colleagues who run them. Without Ginny, the YMCA Arts Branch might struggle to keep its lights on, and many a fund-raising dinner at Syracuse Stage would be dull. Without Fritz, the SSO may never have made it to Carnegie Hall in 2003, or been able to settle new contracts for its musicians in 2006.
The Parkers do much of their arts work in the background, writing fund-raising appeals, making connections to potential donors and offering their advice and expertise to fellow board members. A lot of their involvement in the arts is more obvious, however, and they’re frequently in the audience, watching performances of the organizations they support.
In their spare time, the couple deepens their knowledge of the arts by constantly reading newspapers, magazines and artists’ biographies.
If you visit the Parkers’ DeWitt home, they’ll probably sit with you at their long kitchen table. Ginny will launch into lively chatter, occasionally adding, “Don’t you think so, Fritz?” to the ends of her sentences or looking over at her husband. He will respond with a pithy “yes,” “mmhmm” or nod before offering his view.
Ginny studies Spanish in her free time. In fact, their home answering machine greeting is “Hola, amigos!” She is short, has closecropped brown wavy hair and dresses nicely but casually with colorful bracelets and necklaces. Fritz enjoys ornithology, the study of birds. He is tall and thin with white hair and glasses. Both look younger than their actual ages—70 and 74, respectively. They have a small orange tree in their family room.
Fritz grew up in the small town of Lowville, just southeast of Watertown, and Ginny was raised outside of Rochester, in Brighton. They met while students at the University of Rochester. Ginny majored in history and minored in fine arts and Fritz ended up staying at the university for medical school.
They moved to Syracuse in 1971 so that Fritz could start a job as a heart surgeon at University Hospital. In 1975, Ginny co-founded and began teaching at Kynda Montessori School out of May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society, where she worked until retiring in 2000. Fritz retired shortly thereafter in 2001 from his position as a heart surgeon and chairman of the department of surgery at Upstate.
Pat MacKillop, a friend of the Parkers’, describes Ginny as charming with a lot of bravado. Her husband, Jim MacKillop, a longtime Syracuse New Times contributor, says Fritz is an “anti-diva,” not at all flashy. Just as they have starkly different personalities, the Parkers’ fund-raising styles are distinct, too.
For Ginny, fund-raising harkens to her days as a Montessori School teacher. She sees it as a form of education. “A lot of people do not like to ask for money, but I don’t think of it so much as asking for money as giving people knowledge, an opportunity and a choice, and then hopefully they’ll give money,” she says.
Ginny has been a member of the Syracuse Stage board since 1996. Barbara Beckos, director of development at Syracuse Stage, says one way Ginny shows her commitment to the arts is by combing through magazines and newspapers for relevant clippings. She once found an obscure article from The New York Times about August Wilson and presented it at a Syracuse Stage dinner celebrating the opening of the show Fences. “There were a number of us that said, ‘My God, how did she find that?’” Beckos says.
Fritz explains that fund-raising is about using connections to speak openly with people about the arts. “My secret is I know a lot of people, and when I go by, they know what I’m coming for, and we just have a nice chat,” he says.
When he finished his four-year term as chair of the symphony board in 2006, Fritz led a committee to renegotiate contracts for the orchestra’s musicians. His colleagues say his personal relationships with the musicians and his ability to reconcile the board’s interests with those of the musicians’ union made Fritz the ideal candidate for the job. No doubt he will be consulted about the symphony’s current fiscal crisis.
“He genuinely felt that if you told the musicians what the financial situation of the symphony was, they would understand, and they would not strike just to get more money,” Jim MacKillop says. “He just wanted them to know how much the board was on their side, and that’s typically Fritz.”
The Parkers frequently show their appreciation for the arts at events they attend outside of board meetings. Ginny, according to Beckos, is usually compelled by the more artistic, riskier plays that Syracuse Stage puts on, rather than the popular ones. Fritz once gave a significant donation to the Shaw Festival in Ontario after quickly discerning that it was producing high-quality theater.
“His name was in the program, so it wasn’t $50,” MacKillop adds knowingly. “He immediately sized up what an expensive operation it was—how fabulous the costumes were, the quality of the acting—and he recognized that needed support.”
The Parkers are known among their colleagues for practicing what they preach in terms of fund-raising. Fran Nichols, who has
served on the symphony board with Fritz for several years and knows the couple personally, says Fritz and Ginny both give time, money and a lot of their hearts to arts organizations in the community. This helps when it comes times to leverage others for money.
Ginny says the most important tenet of good fund-raising is giving of yourself so that others will follow the example you set. “You can’t ask people to do something you don’t already do,” she says.
Many of the Parkers’ colleagues say the couple understands that a thriving arts scene in Syracuse is important to the health of the community, thereby attracting talented, interesting people to move here. “When we were recruiting for new doctors at Upstate, or looking for people for a Montessori School and so on, you could always talk to them about what a rich environment it was in Syracuse for a city this size,” Ginny says.
Still, it’s remarkable that in the cozy Syracuse arts scene, the Parkers fly under the radar. But to those they ask for money, their impression remains indelible. Once, they both independently visited Steve Rogers—editor and publisher of The Post-Standard—on the same day, each asking him to donate money to a different organization. Rogers agreed to give money to the symphony for Fritz and to the Community Wide Dialogue’s Duck Race to End Racism for Ginny. When the couple left Rogers’ office, he poked fun at them for bombarding him with fund-raising requests.
“When we left he said, ‘You know, this has been quite a day,’ and I said, ‘Well, why is that?’” Ginny recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve been Parkered!’”
Where the art is: The Parkers, Fritz and Ginny, believe a lively arts scene translates into a vital city of Syracuse, able to attract residents who will further support those night-life nonprofits. Proof of their love of theater can be found in their bathroom, boasting Playbill covers collected on the couple’s travels to New York City.