Marselis Parsons 'soon' to retire from WCAX TV
By SUSAN ALLEN TIMES ARGUS EDITOR | March 09,2009
BURLINGTON — It's hard to imagine WCAX TV Channel 3 News without Marselis Parsons III in an anchor chair. After all, "Div" Parsons has been delivering the news in some fashion on Vermont's Own for 42 years.
Yet at age 64, he is beginning to contemplate retirement, saying only "soon" when asked about his timing.
We talked last week in his glass-walled office, as he watched the newsroom activity beyond and juggled phone calls from CBS News looking for video on a Vermont-based story that was going national that day. Familiar faces like senior reporter Darren Perron and producer and anchor Roger Garrity popped in with updates and scheduling issues for Wednesday night's show.
Parsons is clearly proud of his staff, slipping off into anecdotes about one or another, and tears up when talking about recent layoffs at the station (media outlets across the state and nation, including the Burlington Free Press, Rutland Herald and Times Argus have also been forced to reduce staff in this economic downturn).
"It was my second-worst day" of his professional life, he said, noting that the day Mickey Gallagher — his former boss and member of the Vermont Broadcasters Hall of Fame — died in 1984 was the single worst.
Marselis is a Dutch name, the name of his grandfather and father before him, a name he can track back to the 17th Century. Div said he used the full Marselis Parsons III in the past, frustrated by letters from reporters looking for work addressed to "Dear Miss Parsons." He shakes his head that anyone hoping to be a reporter would have such a dismal investigative ability.
The nickname Div came from classmates in Norway, where his father was serving in the State Department.
"Div is like a wind-devil," he said, smiling. "Marselis is such a dreadful name. I wanted a nickname like Pete or Joe."
In radio, where on-air personalities often use pseudonyms and where Parsons got his media start, he was known as Derrick or Dave on station WEST ("You're always headed right when you're headed WEST," was the station's slogan, he recalls).
When he learned that WTSL, a small television station in Hanover, N.H., was going to start a news broadcast, he applied for the job. During his interview, the manager was uninterested in Parson's resume, but gave him the job after learning he could operate heavy equipment, including a road grader.
The news station, it turned out, was located on top of a mountain with a long road that needed constant grading. There was no phone or teletype machine in the tiny cubical of a building. In contrast, WCAX must have seemed like The Ritz.
At his WCAX interview 42 years ago, the late station owner Stuart "Red" Martin asked a very different question: Did Parsons know who John Peter Zenger was? Parsons didn't (Zenger was a journalist in the mid-1700s who wrote an editorial that ultimately led to the premise that truth is a defense against libel), but still got the job.
Parsons said that three stories stand out in his mind over his long career — one was emotional, one a great story, and one a professional success only a journalist could truly savor (I sure did).
The first was the brutal 1981 slaying of 12-year-old Melissa Walbridge, which was especially moving because Div's own daughter was only 2 at the time.
"It affected me deeply," he said of that case.
The second was an interview he did a Tunbridge farmer, who described in detail dying at Fletcher Allen Health Care after a heart attack and standing before God who decided whether he should live.
"How'd you know it was God," Parsons asked the man.
"You won't need a TV announcer to tell you who God is," the man replied. Obviously, Parsons noted, the farmer lived.
The third story involved Bill Keough, a Vermonter who was taken hostage in Iran in 1979 and was given a parade when he returned to home in Boston upon his release. Parsons, along with the national media, descended on Boston and began scrambling for an interview — all denied. But with a little good reporting work, Parsons was able with police help to locate the home, and because he had covered Keough for years as a school superintendent in Vermont, secure the only interview.
Parsons said television news has technologically advanced, adding that in the old days the station would have to essentially develop film and physically ship it to CBS News in Washington. Now that is done instantly (Perron was in the process of sending tape to CBS News for their nightly broadcast as we spoke).
A computer program now helps the station time-out their hour-long broadcasts in a way that was difficult by hand. For the record, he said, the show consists of 27 minutes of news, six minutes of weather, seven of sports, 13 of commercials, and four of teasers.
Parsons was critical, however, of television's "instant analysis" following every big speech or event. He said he turns off the television after a speech to allow himself time to process what he heard before listening to pundits' punditry.
Does he have a vision about where television news is heading?
"I really don't," he said. "I've seen more changes in the last 10 years than the first 30."
He noted that even newspapers, including the Times Argus, are running video on their Web sites, and news outlets are often called "content providers" rather than newspaper or television news.
But he will not be around too much longer to deal with those changes.
Will he kick back and head for the water when he retires, I ask. He owns two boats, a 1947 Chris-Craft called White Caps and a sailboat called Sandpiper.
While he will spend some time on the water, Parsons said, he plans to move into the family's home in Lyme, N.H., on the banks of the Connecticut River overlooking the Vermont shoreline. And, he said, he hopes to take a camera and continue telling stories for WCAX.
Because ultimately, although he sits in an anchor chair and runs a newsroom, Div Parsons is at heart a storyteller.