116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — On May 18, 2018 — the day after getting the crushing call that his little sister, longtime University of Iowa lecturer Donna Parsons, had died unexpectedly at age 51 after a short illness — Don Parsons and his wife visited her apartment in Iowa City.
He noticed a bulletin board in the kitchen of the beloved lecturer — who was known across campus for her pop-culture courses like “World of Beatles,” “Women Who Rock” and “Harry Potter and the Quest for Enlightenment.”
“And on that were letters and thank you cards from former students, telling her how much they appreciated her for all of her classes,” Don Parsons told The Gazette. “She always seemed to relate to her students on an individual level.”
Donna Parsons spent 33 years at the UI before her untimely death, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music and then a doctorate before joining the staff as a lecturer on popular music and culture. Her large lectures gained legendary status, filling up in just hours and forming wait lists.
“But yet these cards say, ‘I felt you were talking to me,’” Parsons said of the notes he found hanging in his sister’s kitchen.
Although Donna Parsons is gone, her legacy won’t be forgotten thanks to a new “Donna Parsons Arts and Policy Lecture Series” supported by the UI Public Policy Center, a research hub aimed at giving policymakers and the public information “to make our lives and communities thrive.”
The center for years has used lectures — like the one Parsons gave — to engage people of differing views and perspectives on difficult and culturally-relevant topics, according to center Director Pete Damiano. Oftentimes that brings them to an intersection of art and public policy — broadly defined — making a lecture series honoring Parson’s memory “a perfect fit.”
“It both commemorates Donna’s memory but then also highlights the important overlap between arts and public policy,” Damiano said.
Earlier this fall, the center had planned to announce its first Donna Parsons lecture and inaugural recipient of the Donna Parsons Arts & Policy award recognizing contribution to the arts — but the event had to be postponed due to unforeseen circumstances. Organizers now are making plans for the spring.
Don Parsons said the lecture series — attracting big names to tackle culturally- and socially-relevant issues — is a perfect way to honor his sister’s legacy.
“She died way too young,” he said. “To me, that would be a gift back to her kids — to the students — to have these guest speakers come talk at the university.”
The family also committed some of Parsons’ estate to establishing two scholarships.
“She didn't have a bad bone in her body, she was sweet to the end,” her brother said. “And everything she did was for her students. She was always working and thinking, ‘What can I do to make the class better?’ ‘What other classes could I put together that I could possibly teach?”
Her goal was to connect students and the things they enjoy to the larger world they were inhabiting and launching into. And Parsons found one vehicle for that in The Beatles — a band that served as a throughline for her life.
‘Science of Sgt. Pepper’
When Donna Parsons was born in 1966, her older brother already was jamming to “The Fab Four.” And his fandom rubbed off on his baby sister.
“She grew up as my little buddy,” he said. “We did everything together. Played in the backyard. And listened to records.”
Because Don Parsons was 5 years older, he had read all the Beatles books and knew all the background stories and would share his insight as they listened.
“Usually we played them in the mornings before we went to school,” he said. “We’d get up, wash our hair or shower, and I’d put a record on the stereo while we had breakfast and got ready for school. And if I knew the background behind the song, then I would tell her.”
Like the iconic “Blackbird.”
“It’s not about a bird,” he said. “It’s about a young lady.”
He explained that the term “bird” is English slang for “young lady,” and so a Black bird is a Black lady. And Paul McCartney wrote the song about racial tensions at the time.
“It was in support of desegregation,” he said.
And that knowledge — and way of viewing popular culture — paved the way for Donna Parson’s musical legacy at the UI. A large part of her research and teaching focused on the Beatles. She took trips to Liverpool, visited the red gate outside Strawberry Field and walked down Abby Road.
She filled her office walls with Beatles paraphernalia and was working on a forthcoming book. In 2017, Parsons gave a “The Science of Sgt. Pepper” presentation as part of a series sponsored by the Science Center in Des Moines.
And she also taught courses on other music legends and on Harry Potter.
Her fandom would infiltrate her teaching, and it was infectious, according to friend and colleague Katie Buehner, director of the UI Rita Benton Music Library.
“She always had this really broad knowledge of whatever subject she was teaching,” Buehner said. “With the Beatles class, just her personal status as a Beatles fan would come through very strongly. So there was always just an enthusiastic joy for the subject she was teaching, and students would latch on to it.”
Parsons taught students about the 1960s through the Beatles. She taught them how to interpret poetry. She taught them to pursue their passions, Buehner said.
“She would say, here's something you really love or something that you're really interested in, and it doesn't seem like it fits in the academy, but here's how it can,” she said. “She taught them that they could really love something and learn a lot about it at the same time and not have that distort it for them.”
Don Parsons recalled his sister’s memorial were people were welcomed to come up to a microphone and share a memory. A young student came up and cried as she spoke.
“She just said that Donna treated her as an equal and was always supportive,” he said. “And she was so thankful that she had her.”
Comments: (319) 339-3158; firstname.lastname@example.org