Those fortunate enough to have known Doug Parsons are mourning his sudden loss and the void it leaves for a community of people who valued his friendship and relied on the leadership and counsel he regularly provided — always with the utmost integrity and compassion. That void simply cannot be filled, many said.
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge William Douglas (Doug) Parsons passed away Sunday in his sleep while on an annual golfing trip to Myrtle Beach with some of his best friends. He was just two weeks shy of his 67th birthday.
“What a devastating loss,” said Dale Johnson, who called it a “shock” upon hearing his close friend and longtime law partner had passed. Johnson, eight years Parsons’ senior and his law partner for the better part of four decades, said the man loved his chosen profession and was a true student of the law. “He was the cornerstone of the legal community. He will be greatly missed. He really will be.”
On Monday, white bows were placed around the Sampson County Courthouse and at the site of Parsons’ former law office on College Street, where he and Johnson spent so many years, and where their former partner David Hobson still practices. County commissioners also voted unanimously to lower the flags at all county facilities in honor of Parsons.
A practicing attorney for 37 years in his hometown of Clinton, Parsons served for the past five years as Senior Resident Superior Court Judge for Judicial District 4A, which encompasses Jones, Duplin and Sampson counties.
He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and earned his law degree from Wake Forest University, going on to serve as anassistant district attorney, a U.S. attorney and a fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers.
Among many accolades, he was awarded Best Lawyers in America, Legal Elite, Top 100 Criminal Lawyers, and lectured for the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers. He was a former trustee at Sampson Community College, a former commissioner on the N.C. Wildlife Commission and a lifelong member of First United Methodist Church in Clinton.
“He was perhaps the best criminal lawyer I’ve ever known,” said Ben Warrick, another former law partner of Parsons. “He was never unprepared. His abilities were important to him.”
Warrick recalled meeting Parsons at the law offices of Pete Butler in downtown Clinton, where Parsons’ mother worked.
“I was up there one day and he was home from college and came in to see his momma, and that’s how we met,” said Warrick. “I remember how proud Pete was of him, like a father. He said ‘Doug’s going to be a fine lawyer.’ And indeed he was.”
Parsons entered the legal profession as an assistant district attorney, hired by then DA Walter Britt. He served with Britt and Bill Andrews before being appointed as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Raleigh, where he served from 1978-79. He came back to Clinton and joined the late Clif Paderick, Warrick and Dale Johnson in private practice. When Paderick became presidentof Sampson Community College, the practice was Johnson, Parsons and Warrick.
In 1995, it became Johnson, Parsons and Hobson, remaining that way until Parsons accepted the judgeship.
“He was an excellent attorney and a good friend,” said Warrick, who wasn’t surprised by Parsons’ eventual selection as judge. “My strongest memory of Doug was how he was always prepared. All of us that were practicing at the time, if we had a vote, we would have voted for Doug. It was the logical choice.”
Parsons was officially appointed by Gov. Beverly Perdue in March 2012 to replace retiring Superior Court Judge Russell Lanier Jr. Parsons’ was the first judgeship held by a Sampson County attorney in 41 years, since Judge Howard Hubbard leftthe bench in 1971.
Parsons was selected from a narrowed field of three candidates recommended by the Judicial Nominating Commission.
Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton had the honor of speaking to that commission on behalf of his friend Parsons, whom he had known since 1976, when Parsons was an assistant DA and Thornton had recently transferred from Johnston County back home to Sampson as a probation officer.
“It was a friendship that immediately took off,” Thornton said. “He had the type of demeanor that if you were upset, he could calm you down. That’s not a quality a lot of people have.”
Through the years, the two shared many personal and professional experiences and countless private conversations where they bounced thoughts off each other. Thornton said he was shocked by Sunday’s news and his heart aches for Parsons’ wife Roxanne and the grandchild that Parsons won’t get to see grow up.
“I really get emotional, because he was a dear friend,” said Thornton, his voice cracking. “He had the utmost integrity, not just as an attorney. He looked out for the best interests of everybody involved. I thought that was an admirable trait. He was well-known and well-respected across the state.”
‘Leader in our community’
Clinton Mayor Lew Starling, an attorney himself, knew Parsons his entire life. Although some years apart in age, they were both born on Powell Street and grew up just a house away from each other on the same side of the street.
“I admired him all my life,” said Starling. “He excelled and served with distinction as a state prosecutor, a federal prosecutor, a practicing attorney and then as a Superior Court judge. He served so well on the bench. He had an outstanding legal mind and was a man with great integrity who wasn’t scared to do the right thing.”
“We really lost a true public servant, not just in this county, but statewide,” Thornton added. “He had what it took not just to represent his profession well, but represent this county.”
That was something in which Parsons prided himself.
After being appointed as Superior Court judge, Parsons ran unopposed in November 2012, earning the judgeship for another eight years. Before all that came to pass, Parsons sat back in his College Street law office in early 2012, days after the governor’s appointment, content with achieving a lifelong goal and ecstatic to represent his beloved Clinton and Sampson County.
“I am the luckiest person to ever have had a law license,” Parsons said upon his appointment. “I consider it a privilege to represent Sampson in this way, and I can promise I will do everything in my power to make the county proud. It is my intention to be courteous to everyone, incredibly prepared, incredibly fair and to always do the right thing. It’s exciting, without question, to undertake the final part of your career being able to live out your dream. It’s very humbling, it really is.”
Thornton praised his friend for always embracing his hometown at every turn, and never forgetting where he came from —the son of Seth William and Erma Lee Parsons on Powell Street.
“Doug Parsons never, ever forgot his roots,” the sheriff attested. “He always treated everyone the same. Status didn’t matterto him; money didn’t matter to him. People talk about the whole package — Doug Parsons was the total package. I know I’ve lost a dear friend and he is really going to be missed.”
Dale Johnson’s wife Diane said Parsons made an indelible mark in his 66 years.
“He has impacted our lives and so many in this community in so many ways, professionally and personally,” she said. “His passing leaves a big hole. He was such a leader in our community.”
She mentioned the many young attorneys to whom Parsons served as a mentor, a counselor, a colleague and friend.
“He was a good person and a lot of people depended on him, things that the general public doesn’t even know about,” said Dale Johnson. “He was always looking out for other people, looking out for young attorneys.”
“He helped so many people in his private practice and did so much good work that gained statewide recognition,” Starling added. “Lawyers would call him up for counsel. He was recognized as a lawyer’s lawyer, truly a legal scholar. I have lost a great friend, the city has lost a great friend and the state of North Carolina has lost a great friend.”
Parsons would often work past midnight, the light in his office on College Street a beacon under a blanket of darkness.
“He found a profession he loved and he did it so well and served the community so well,” Diane remarked. “The passion forpracticing law was so strong in him. He loved it and was so good at it. And, as much as he loved practicing law, he loved being a judge.”
Roxanne and Doug both enjoyed the judgeship, Diane said. It was still hard work for Parsons, but much less stressful. As much as he loved the law, he loved Roxanne and his family more.
“They loved him being on the bench,” Diane said. “It was less stress and gave them more time together. They had plans to do things in the future.”
Parsons’ loss is a gut-punch for the family and a massive blow for the entire community.
“He really was a voice for Clinton and Sampson County, and its citizens,” said Diane. “Those are big shoes to fill, that passion, intellect and desire — what a loss, what a tremendous loss.”