Texas Division of the International Association for Identification
ADAPT, INNOVATE AND OVERCOME
Biography of Charles Parker
While Charles “Charlie” Parker (never call him Chuck) could be remembered simply as a mentor, teacher and friend, that doesn’t tell the full story of who he was or come close to describing the depth of his contribution to forensics. It says nothing of why a whole generation remembers him fondly and considered him a mentor, or how he made a difference in the lives of everyone he met and helped make those of us who were fortunate enough to know him who we are today.
He called himself the “Knuckle Draggin Country Cousin.” You might have thought that was the truth until you talked with him. Charlie was from the small west Texas town of Garden City, east of Midland/Odessa, where the tumbleweeds out numbered the town folks. The school district was one building, with kids ranging in age from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. After high school he attended community college, which got interrupted by two tours in Vietnam. He once told me about how he made it back to the US after his final tour. While others waited days for a flight to get them to their home state, he was set on getting out of Vietnam as soon as possible. He took the first available flight he could get leaving to any state in the union, and then the next and the next until he got back to Texas. He said he made it home in the same amount of time as the others but got out of Vietnam quicker than they did. That story always stuck with me because it showed how he would think things through and approach them from a different angle.
Once he had returned to the US, he finished a degree in Law Enforcement
Administration at the University of Maryland in 1976. He had originally wanted
to be an FBI agent, so in 1973, to get his foot in the door, he took a position
in the FBI’s Identification Division classifying and searching fingerprint cards for prior arrest
records (Sidebar: He knew I enjoyed classification and lamented its
demise. With the advent of AFIS, Henry classification became a dying art, so to
tease me he liked to say, “Henry is dead.”). In 1979, after not having had any
success becoming an FBI agent, he took a job with the Corpus Christi Police
Department. He worked crime scene and latent prints, eventually becoming the supervisor.
When he passed away, most of the Corpus Christi crime scene team drove three
hours up to Bastrop to attend the service. This spoke volumes, as he had been
gone from Corpus for several years. After retiring from Corpus Christi PD in
the next step was he took a position in the Latent Prints Section
of the Texas Department of Public Safety Crime Laboratory in Austin, where he
worked for about two years.
I first met Charlie in July of 2001, when I attended the Advanced Latent Comparison class at the DPS Academy where he was a guest Instructor. I wanted to talk with him but didn’t have the courage. It wasn’t until December of 2002, when I was working with Judith Miller and Diane Reid on re-doing the ID Officer school taught at DPS by the Crime Record staff, that I finally meet him personally. We asked him to go over our program. He provided feedback which helped to shape anyone who took the ID Officer school and DPS Crime records as they were taught using the same material. He was very good about taking time to help and also recognizing people. I still have the letter he sent to the manager of Fingerprint and Records Bureau commending us on the program we put together.
It was when Charlie came to DPS Crime Records to help us, I finally asked him what I could do to become a Latent Examiner. He let me borrow his binders of material (before the digital age, he kept physical copies articles) and we talked about what I could do to be ready for future opportunities in the field. Had I known how approachable he was I would have talked to him back in 2001.
As he got older it became harder for Charlie to make crime scenes, so in 2001 he resigned from DPS and took a job with the Austin Police Department. When I became a Latent Print Examiner at Austin PD in December of 2003, I was fortunate to work closely with him for more than seven years. On my first day he gave me a training binder which contained empty pages so that I could start a work journal. I was to write down what I did or learned and to keep track of how many cases I had worked. This information was useful later on when I would testify about my experience. I was able to say how many prints I had looked at, how many identifications I had made, etc. This is where he was a mentor. He was instructing me so that I would be more prepared than he had been earlier in his own career. When he had testified, he had had to give estimates, whereas I was able or give specific numbers for a particular date. This came in handy on more than one occasion.
Many times, I would be at my desk working on a comparison and out of the corner of my eye I would see him step up to the island in the middle of the office, where he would start to talk about something he had read. One by one, others would stop what they were doing and join him, and we would discuss whatever topic had piqued his interest that day. Afterward, I would go back and do additional research on the topic so that I would have a better understanding of it and be able to put it in my own words. It was important to not memorize someone else’s views. It’s easier to remember in your own words or understanding. I wrote it all down and worked on it throughout my career. I added new topics as the profession evolved. I called it my court prep. When I got a subpoena, I would look over it to refresh my memory. I didn’t have the ability that Charlie had to keep it all in my mind. These discussions provided a depth to my training that couldn’t be found in a book or comparison exercise.
Charlie was a member of SWGFAST from 1996 to 2002. This was right up his alley, as they discussed issues in the discipline to set standards. He was a frequent contributor to forensic forums. His posts can still be read on CLPEX.com. I would encourage anyone reading this to go there and look at his posts. It will show you how his mind worked and how he approached things. If I close my eyes, I can still see him standing at the middle island chewing over the issue of the day.
His quiet and unassuming style would draw you in. He called himself the devil’s advocate, and would argue both sides of an issue in order to make you think on your feet as if you were testifying, or to illustrate there is always more than one side to any issue. His approach to teaching was not about lecturing. He wanted to exchange information and find out what you thought. He never spoke condescendingly, no matter how little experience the examiner with whom he was conversing might have had.
Charlie didn’t want the spotlight. He wouldn’t take credit if you thanked him, he would simply say “I only opened the door, you needed to walk through it.” His style was to teach so that you could work through a problem. He valued initiative, saying it showed character and who really wanted the job. He had many sayings, but one of my favorites was “you can have twenty years of experience or one year repeated twenty times.”
He hated when people would hoard knowledge for the sake of power or elitism, believing that knowledge not shared is knowledge lost. To illustrate the depth of his belief in this, Charlie once shared all his training material with another examiner while he was still teaching the very same classes (essentially sharing with his competition). He thought that it was important to take classes from different instructors, since everyone approaches things differently and that might help you learn something new.
His teaching credits are extensive and go way beyond the training of the employees at agencies where he worked. He had been an assistant instructor with the DPS Academy starting in 1991, before he left Corpus Christi PD. He taught segments of the Techniques of Developing Latent Prints, Advanced Latent Comparison, and the testimony section of the ID Officer School, back in the day when it was the only game in town. Texas was fortunate because most states did not offer official training. By teaching in the police academy, tuition was kept affordable because it included a room and three meals. Students came from all around (I personally taught people from Oklahoma and New Mexico). It took years before Ron Smith and Associates would teach in Texas. Throughout his career Charlie gave presentations at police academies, local colleges, and educational conferences for the International Association for Identification as well as the Texas and California Divisions of the IAI.
A few months after I started with Austin PD, Charlie was asked to be the main instructor for the classes at the DPS Academy. I had shown an interest in assisting him, as I had some experience teaching and enjoyed doing it. At first, I helped him with the hands-on part of the classes. This was my favorite part, as I would ask the student questions to help them work through the comparison the way I had been taught. There was never any pressure on me to start lecturing. I was able to choose when I was ready and what part I wanted. He would say “the best way to understand something was to teach it or write about it.” So, with this mindset, I would take one process at a time, do the research, and write my own presentations. That was his style. He opened the door and the rest was up to you.
While we taught at the DPS Academy it was sponsored by the Texas Police Association, so we took it on the road when the DPS Academy was shut down. We taught at the Texas Tech Forensic Institute in Lubbock, the DA investigator conference, and several workshops with the IAI. I learned many things from him that went beyond how to compare fingerprints. I learned about myself and what I could accomplish.
He was a long-time coin collector and always kept some in his pocket when teaching or at a conference. Before either, he would go to the bank and get rolls of silver dollars to get people to participate. You didn’t have to be right, just making him think was enough. While looking through memories, I found the first coin he gave me. I have heard many people say they still have theirs.
He never stopped his journey, taking any opportunity he could to be active in the discipline. He served on boards and committees with TDIAI as well as the parent body IAI. He was TDIAI President from 2003 to 2004. He also served as the Sergeant-at-Arms, Editor, Historian for several years.
Charlie loved history. In 2011 David Grieve wrote an “In Memoriam” for the IAI’s IDentification News talking about his and Charlie’s shared love of history. Current IAI Historian Darrell Klasey has also spoken of Charlie’s love of history. One of Charlie’s favorite television programs was Connections hosted by science historian James Burke. It was about how one small thing, one small discovery, could follow a thread leading to modern concepts, just like forensic work.
He served on both the IAI and TDIAI Latent Print certification boards. He was on numerous committees. He served one term on the Board of Directors for the IAI from 2010-2011. As a part of the selection process you have to present yourself to the members at the business meeting. You can also have someone step up on your behalf. It is important to note that there is a time limit. Charlie spoke for about a minute and then had another person speak up. Then with one second left Ron Smith stepped up to the mic. There was laughter because everyone was curious what could be done with such limited time. With his gift for speaking, Ron stepped up and said, “I like him and so will you.” So much was said in that one second.
As much as Charlie enjoyed all he was able to do on the international level, his heart was still in Texas. He continued serving to the end and was recognized after he passed away in 2011, with the Dedication of Service award by the IAI for outstanding dedication over time to the Association. He long career show that life is a journey not a destination.
He loved quotations and inspirational sayings. One he had on his desk sums up Charlie better than any words I have written:
All of life is a learning experience. Learning how to see ourselves and others in a kinder gentler light, learning how to see life not so much as a box, but as a river, learning how to juggle your own frailties and those of others with equal care, learning that helping someone love themselves is a far better way to get love for yourself that demanding that they love you.
He never missed an opportunity do just that. When promoting a class, we both were teaching he would say that it was being taught by “the fabulous Sandy Siegel and the mediocre Charles Parker.”
Another example of this came in 2007, when the QUIP
Coordinator position for the IAI Journal became available. This is a feature in
the back of the journal that talks about interesting patterns. At the IAI
conference that year, I did a poster presentation showing interesting patterns
which challenged people to determine the pattern type
with references. Someone
came to my presentation and mentioned that the QUIP position was available and
that I should apply, as they were doing interviews that week. During my
interview, I found out that Charlie had also applied. As a joke I told them if
they choose Charlie, they will get two for the price of one. Later, back at the
office, I found out that I had been given the opportunity, to which I still
contribute today. I believe he was offered the position and turned it down so I
could do it. I guess I liked Henry more. I’m always on the lookout for
interesting prints, so if you find any send them my way.
As each generation ages out and new ones take their place, we are losing his spirit of curiosity and sharing. But he didn’t leave a void if we step up. We can make our own contribution to the future and carry on his legacy. Not everyone is comfortable standing in front of a class or posting a question on a forum. You don’t have to jump in with both feet. I learned of many ways to contribute by following Charlie’s example. Sometimes as little as volunteering for a small task can lead to something big. You can learn from any experience and you never know what contact you may create or where it might take you. That is why being a member of a professional organization is important. At conferences he would see first time attendees, approach them, engage them in conversation, make them feel comfortable and then show them around, introducing them to others. When he renewed his membership, he would put in an extra $5.00 to go to the scholarship fund. It can be as little as that.
I know I have left a lot out. It would be interesting to hear Charlie stories from others. Although he didn’t get to write his book titled That Brush Don’t Fit My Fingers, turn to the dark side as a defense attorney, or wear a white suit with a red bow tie on his last day in court, he opened the door and left a trail for anyone to follow. It’s up to you to walk through, and every time you do make sure to open another door for the next person. Not only does paying it forward keep his spirit of sharing alive, it means we are continuing the excellence of the profession he cared about.