The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Parker, Jessie M.
(February 25, 1880–May 1, 1959)

–state education leader—was one of three children of Frederick H. and Martha J. (Knapp) Parker. Born in rural Black Hawk County, Iowa, she subsequently moved with her family to Lake Mills, where she attended elementary and secondary school. Following graduation as a member of the first Lake Mills graduating class in 1896, she attended and graduated from Iowa State Normal School. Her subsequent higher education included music study at Grinnell College, a bachelor of pedagogy degree from Valparaiso University in Indiana, and a bachelor of arts degree from Des Moines University.

    Parker began her education career in 1898 in the Lake Mills schools, where she taught at all elementary grade levels before being transferred to the eighth grade because of her ability to control the "bad boys" or "rowdy little rascals" she regarded as "full of life and aware of everything that's going on."Parker later became principal of the high school, remaining there until 1915, when she ran for Winnebago County Superintendent of Schools. She won the election, becoming the first woman to hold elective office in that county.

    In 1927 Iowa Superintendent of Public Instruction Agnes Samuelson appointed Parker rural superintendent for the state. One of Parker's goals in that position was to "make Iowa the "˜singingest' state in the nation" by acquiring phonographs or pianos for as many of the more than 9,000 one-room schools as possible. When Samuelson retired in 1938, Parker was elected Superintendent of Public Instruction as a Republican and won reelection in 1942, 1946, and 1950, making her the longest-serving Superintendent of Public Instruction up to that time. By the time she retired in 1954, Parker had persuaded the state legislature to make the Superintendent of Public Instruction an appointive position, one of her primary objectives while in office. Another of her goals was to consolidate rural school districts: in her four terms, she cut the number of rural districts in half. In addition, she created more curricular aids, introduced a new accounting system for school budgets, and successfully worked with others to establish more rigorous teacher certification requirements. In the late 1930s she established a home-to-school telephone system for children who were ill at home, making Iowa the first state in the nation to have such a program and initiating a program that would be adopted worldwide.

    Parker's interest in special education extended to her active involvement in vocational rehabilitation; during her terms as superintendent, she served as chair and executive officer of the State Board of Vocational Rehabilitation. In 1952 she persuaded the Iowa Executive Council to give her the use of three wood buildings vacated when the Lucas Building opened that year on the capitol grounds in Des Moines. She made them accessible to people with disabilities, thereby establishing the groundwork for a vocational rehabilitation building that opened in 1980 on that site. In 1988, at the conclusion of a campaign conducted by former and present state officials and organizations, the Iowa legislature honored Parker's legacy by naming the building the Jessie M. Parker Building, the first state building named for a woman.

    During her professional career, Parker was a lifetime member of the National Education Association, a member of the American Association of School Administrators, and a charter member of Iowa's Delta Kappa Gamma chapter, an organization formed to address equality issues for professional women educators, and she served as second vice president of the National Council of Chief State School Officers. In 1937 she was a U.S. delegate to the International Educational Association conference held in Tokyo. She spent two months in Japan and China, and in spite of difficulty leaving China due to the impending hostilities between Japan and China, regarded the experience as a highlight of her life that gave her firsthand knowledge of other customs and cultures. In recognition of her leadership in education, Parker received an honorary LL.D. from Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, Iowa.

    Parker was also active in women's organizations such as the Business and Professional Women's League of Des Moines and the Iowa Federation of Women's Clubs, participating in conservation activities for the latter. Upon returning to Lake Mills after her retirement in 1954, Parker served one term on the local school board. She renewed her activities in her local church, where she had been the organist from the age of 12 until she moved to Des Moines. In recognition of her dedicated service to the Lake Mills community as an educator and as a founder and board member of its public library, schools, businesses, and the county courthouse closed for the afternoon of her funeral service.

    Jessie M. Parker was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1986.
Sources Clippings files at the Iowa Women's Archives, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, and the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, contain useful information. Those files include the Des Moines Register, 6/6/1987; Lake Mills Graphic, 1/12/1955 and 5/6/1959 (obituary); and Des Moines Evening Tribune, 12/14/1938. See also the obituary in Annals of Iowa 35 (1959), 76; and, in the Iowa Women's Archives, the undated program for the dedication ceremony for the Jessie M. Parker Building.
Contributor: Kathy Penningroth