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Remembering Willie Parson: Beloved 'Mayor of Clematis' walked 500 miles, found a family of friends in WPB

Updated: Jun 28


(NEWSPAPERS.COM)

WILLIE PARSON, the diminutive “Mayor of Clematis Street” who walked some 500 miles to South Florida from his native Georgia 43 years ago and blossomed into a beloved downtown West Palm Beach figurehead, died June 7.  


He was 76.


Mr. Parson, estranged from biological siblings since 1981, had entered hospice two days earlier after battling pneumonia. 


He is survived by an extended family of longtime customers and workers at O’Shea’s Irish Pub, compassionate downtown business owners and ordinary passersby-turned-friends, all of whom he greeted from his perch outside the bar with a friendly “Howyou?”


He was a barfly who didn’t drink or smoke. He spent most of his Florida years at O’Shea’s living in a one-bedroom apartment above the pub, where he worked for 15 years, sweeping floors and taking out trash, before his health deteriorated. 


In retirement, he rarely ventured inside the popular watering hole, preferring to sit outside under an awning on a high top next to the entrance. He relished sitting alone after sunrise, when the bar was closed and silent, watching the world pass by.  


He stood a hair over 5 feet, his head topped by a bucket hat or an Atlanta Falcons cap. But he had a wide smile and a gentle demeanor that drew in many of the people fortunate enough to cross his path on their way to work or to grab a pint – from hipsters, barkeeps and construction workers to police officers, lawyers, and government employees, including at least two West Palm Beach mayors.


“Howyou?” he’d always call out, making two words into one. 


He never married and had no children. But he considered the crowd in and around O'Shea's family and the bar’s front patio his front porch.


Willie Parson with Maurice Costigan (left) and Scott Jones on St. Patrick's Day 2019. (FACEBOOK)

As Palm Beach Post writer Barbara Marshall put it for a 2018 profile: In the South, it's polite to greet everyone who passes by your front porch.


"I'm from Georgia and Georgia people are nice people," Mr. Parson told Marshall, who accurately described his drawl as thick as cane syrup. "When I was coming up, my grandmamma told me to be nice to everybody."


Many regulars considered it a bonus if they stopped by O’Shea’s to find “Willie” holding court outside: That meant getting a hug and a pint.  


“He taught you to think and care about the simple things in life,’’ said Rachel Costigan, who met Mr. Parson in 1995 and went on to become a close friend and caretaker. 


“He didn’t dwell on what was going on in the big wide world. He wasn’t bothered by politics. He just knew what was happening on Clematis. He had a gentle way of saying, ‘Isn’t it a beautiful day?’’’


While his sunny demeanor could be infectious, it masked a previous life of hardship and struggle, a past he rarely shared with his bar family. It was that past that ignited his legendary journey on foot in search of happiness, which he ultimately found in Palm Beach County through the kindness of strangers from England, Ireland and beyond.      


 

Willie Parson in 2019 with little David O'Brien and O'Shea's bartender Matty O'Brien. (COURTESY MATTY O'BRIEN)

Here’s what is known about Mr. Parson, according to details he shared with his closest Palm Beach County friends, some of whom researched public records in attempts to reach his family.


He was born William Henry Parson in Zebulon, Ga., on Feb. 18, 1948. He never knew his father. He was raised by his grandmother after his mother died giving birth to a sibling. 


He dropped out of school after the fifth or sixth grade. His small build made him an easy target for muggers and bullies, including his own older brothers who beat him up to take his money. It was a fate that would follow Mr. Parson into his adult life. 


At 14, he went to work in an Atlanta factory that made blue jean denim. The factory eventually closed. 


It was in December 1980 or early 1981, just before his 33rd birthday, that he decided he’d had enough of getting pushed around by his brothers and enough of the cold winter weather in South Georgia. 


He started walking south. 


He had no particular destination in mind when he set foot out of Griffin, Ga,, he later told friends. He just wanted to get somewhere warm, somewhere  in Florida. 


Early in his journey, he caught a ride from a truck driver. But for most of the way, “I just walked,” he recalled in the 2018 interview.  


He said he slept by the road during the day and walked at night, eating oranges and grapefruit off the trees once he got to Florida.


About 530 miles into his journey, in the middle of a January night in 1981, a southbound Nissan pickup truck passed Mr. Parson on A1A on Hutchinson Island in Martin County. 


The driver of the truck, John Ward Middleton, was on his way home to Jupiter after working his route as a package plant technician. 


“It was 1 a.m. and I’m whipping down the road. I thought I saw something on the side of the road so I turned around and went back. And there was Willie, walking,’’ Middleton recalled the other day.


Middleton said he often picked up hitchhikers in those days for company on long rides to and from work. Although Mr. Parson wasn’t hitchhiking that night, Middleton said he felt compelled to stop and check on the welfare of this tiny lone man walking down the road in the dark. 


“I stopped and asked him if he needed a ride. He said, ‘Sure.’ I asked where he was going. He said, ‘town.’ ‘Where is town?’ He replied, ‘I’m going to Florida.’ I laughed because he’d pretty much made it.’’ 


Middleton took pity on Mr. Parson and bought him dinner at a Denny’s restaurant in Stuart. As Mr. Parson devoured fried chicken and coke, Middleton pressed him for information. 


“He said he had no idea how long he’d been walking. I asked him again where he was going. He said he didn’t have anywhere to go. He just said ‘I'm getting out of Georgia.’ I laughed. ‘Well, you made it. You’re out of Georgia. But where are you going?’ He said he didn’t know.’’


Middleton, who was living with his mother, decided to take Mr. Parson home for the night. He put his guest in his bedroom and spent the night on the couch in the living room.


The next morning, Middleton was jarred awake by the hysterical screams of his mother: “There’s a Black man in your room!” 


The alarm clock in Middleton’s bedroom had gone off, but Mr. Parson couldn’t figure out how to make it stop. “My mom came into my room to smack me in the head for leaving the alarm on, but there was a Black man in the bed,’’ he recalled with a laugh. 


“She ran out of the door screaming and he dove under the covers. I think he was more scared of her than she was of him.’’


Middleton brought Mr. Parson to the Palm Beach Gardens church he attended. The church gave Mr. Parson a job as a parking lot attendant and usher, and a congregant rented him a room in his home in Juno Beach. 


Middleton started taking Mr. Parson to church services and events. A friendship blossomed, and Mr. Parson started to share bits and pieces of his past with his new friend.  


“He was a very likable guy. When you looked at him, you just saw innocence,’’ said Middleton, who said he spoke a couple of times by phone with Mr. Parson’s grandmother. 


“He was like my sidekick. I’d go to church singles and he’d be there with me.’’ 


John Ward Middleton and Willie Parson in 2014 (COURTESY JOHN WARD MIDDLETON)

Before long, Mr. Parson was referring to Middleton as “my brother,’’ even if communication between the two friends could be challenging.


“Between the way he slurred things and his southern accent, it was really hard for people to understand what he was saying. Sometimes I couldn't understand. I'd make him repeat it three or four times,’’ Middleton said.


When the Juno Beach house was put up for sale, Mr. Parson headed south to Lake Worth Beach, working with a landscaping crew, then bounced around “flop houses” in Riviera Beach and West Palm Beach. He worked odd jobs as a window washer, a parking lot attendant. 

 

On Saturdays, Middleton would pick him up and take him to church and then dinner. “He’d spend the night at my house, I’d take him to church again in the morning then drop him back off.’’ 


But when Mr. Parson was on his own, trouble seemed to find him. 


“He carried all his money with him. He got mugged several times in West Palm Beach,’’ Middleton said. “He was a small man. He couldn't defend himself.’’ 


For a while in the early 1990s, he complained about being hassled by the West Palm Beach police. At the time, the notorious Parson drug crew was terrorizing parts of the city. It didn’t seem to matter to the cops that Mr. Parson wasn’t related to the crime family.


“They equated him with the Parson gang. He’d just be standing at a stop sign watching the world go by and they’d harass him,’’ Middleton said. “Eventually he became the police’s best friend. All the cops knew him and loved him, which was such a strange twist from his early days being harassed.’’ 


Walking the streets downtown in the mid- to late-1980s, Mr. Parson befriended anyone who crossed his path. Several street friends were prostitutes, who stole his money and spent it on food and alcohol, Middleton said. The questionable company he kept often got him evicted from places he was staying. 


“William was innocent like a child, which is why he got taken advantage of all the time,’’ he said.


Middleton, before leaving West Palm Beach for a job in Melbourne, helped Mr. Parson with his finances, opening a checking account and helping him apply for Social-Security benefits. 


By 1994, Mr. Parson was washing dishes at a restaurant on the 500 block of Clematis Street. The cafe was sold and converted into an Irish bar — O’Shea’s Irish Pub. Mr. Parson was kept on. 


When Maurice and Rachel Costigan took over O'Shea’s in 1995, Mr. Parson was already as much a part of the bar as the beer taps and dart boards.


"When they bought this place, I came with it," Mr. Parson recalled in 2018.


Rachel and Maurice, natives of England and Ireland, respectively, hit it off with Mr. Parson. For the next 30 years, they treated him like family. They called him Willie.


“I don’t know who actually adopted who, but it happened,” Gubby Zick, a former longtime barkeep at O’Shea’s, wrote on Facebook.


Willie and Maurice always had a hard time deciphering each other's dueling accents, as Marshall wrote in 2018. "We use hand gestures," said Maurice.


Willie Parson and Leah Costigan in 2001. (COURTESY RACHEL COSTIGAN)

In those early days when Maurice and Rachel ran the bar, Mr. Parson often looked after their two children. He’d walk little Niall to the railroad tracks to watch the trains roar by. He’d push little Leah in her stroller to buy lollipops across the street at Blessings Market. 


Rachel can still rattle off a list of things he loved: The Bee Gees, Brut aftershave, Cracker Jacks, the Atlanta Falcons football team, blue bubblegum, strawberries, watermelon, fried chicken and Coca-Cola.


“I used to get him a Bee Gees CD and a bottle of Brut for Christmas,’’ she said. 


When he stopped working, he spent more and more time sitting outside the bar. 


“When I retired from the city, I was lucky enough to see him when I walked downtown early in the mornings, sitting at a table in front of O'Shea's,’’ John Alford, the city’s former Public Works director, wrote on Facebook.


Before long, regulars were affectionately referring to Mr. Parson as “the Mayor of the 500 block of Clematis,’’ a nickname shortened to “Mayor of Clematis.’’ 


A few actual mayors of West Palm Beach were known to stop by the sidewalk outside O'Shea's to pay their respects to the ”Mayor of Clematis.’’ 


The late Mayor Joel Daves, who lived around the corner from the bar, often walked his dogs to O’Shea’s where he’d spend an hour or two on the sidewalk sitting with Mr. Parson. Mr. Daves’ wife, Darden, would bring food for Mr. Parson. 


Former West Palm Beach Mayor Joel Daves in 2018. (FACBOOK)

Mr. Parson’s other prominent admirers included then-Sunfest Executive Director Paul Jamieson and the last two executive directors of the city’s Downtown Development Authority, Melissa Wohlust and Raphael Clemente. 


When a doctor told Mr. Parson he had to eliminate fried chicken and Coke from his diet, Rachel started feeding him healthier food. “But I let him have the Cracker Jacks,’’ she said. “Cracker Jacks were his absolute favorite.’’


As health issues took hold, Mr. Parson slowed down. He spent more time in his apartment watching TV. When he could make it down the 22 steps to the street, he’d sit outside the bar holding court from his high top.  


Mr. Parson battled cancer and liver and kidney disease. At times, he wasn't expected to live, said Rachel, but he'd bounce back. While he was hospitalized, former O’Shea’s employees phoned him from Ireland to offer get-well messages.


On Feb. 18, 2018, the Costigans threw their beloved Willie a 70th birthday party “to thank him for being the street's ambassador,’’ the Post wrote. He sipped cranberry juice while receiving his guests with fist bumps, hand shakes and plenty of hugs.


(NEWSPAPERS.COM)

During the pandemic, health issues forced Mr. Parson to leave his apartment above O’Shea’s and move to a nursing home off Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard.

 

He was in a wheelchair, but the “Mayor of Clematis” still managed to hold court outside O’Shea’s. 


On a Friday once or twice a month, a Palm Gardens Nursing Home bus pulled up to the bar, opened its doors and lowered a ramp carrying Mr. Parson in his wheelchair. Three or four hours later the bus returned to fetch him.


“He missed saying, ‘Howyou,’’’ Rachel said.

 

On May 19, he was admitted to Good Samaritan Medical Center with pneumonia and gastrointestinal issues. “He was deteriorating,’’ Rachel said. 


Rachel and Audrey Farrelly, a former O'shea's manager who runs the popular Serenity Garden Tea House, spent time with Mr. Parson in his final days. 


Rachel Costigan holds Willie Parson's hand on June 4.

On June 5, he went into hospice care. He died two days later. 


“Another Angel in heaven,’’ Alford wrote on Facebook. “It was an honor to know this man.’’


Mr. Parson’s body was cremated. There are no plans for a funeral but plans are in the works for a celebration of life in his honor later this month. 


Meanwhile, social media is filled with tributes to Mr. Parson.


“Hundreds of people over the course of 29 years, each with our own memories and stories of Willie,’’ Zick said. “He made us all the same.”


“We were his family,’’ Rachel said. “We and all the people who walked by O'Shea’s.’’


Middleton, the man who brought the future “Mayor of Clematis” to the West Palm Beach area for the first time in 1981, reflected on the good fortune Mr. Parson found through his extended O’Shea’s family.


“I would like to believe that it was an answer to his grandmother's prayers,’’ he said. 


He summed up his late friend’s legacy like this:  “He never met a stranger and everybody was his friend.’’ 


Willie Parson at O'Shea's. (FACEBOOK)


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About the author

Joe and Willie in 2018

Joe Capozzi is among the countless O'Shea's patrons fortunate to have met Willie Parson. Joe is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government.  He left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.



















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