Member Feature: Don Parrish, Downers Grove, Illinois

Don Parrish is sandwiched between Charles Veley (lleft) of MTP (he completed the TCC list in 2003) and Harry Mitsidis (right) of NomadMania in 2017. Friends of both men, Don is also honored on their respective websites.

By Tim Skeet
Past TCC President

In 1814, Thomas Jefferson wrote in an Essay on George Washington: “He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern.” This is taken from one of Don Parrish’s favorite essays, and in reading this for the first time, I believe this perfectly describes Don.

I initially thought, “Don Parrish? This should be a slam dunk feature!” After all, Don is one of only 24 persons to have ever completed the TCC list. I quickly realized in a series of expanding back-and-forth emails — a series of bullet points increasing to more than 4,000 words — that asking the TCC-awarded “World Traveler” to sum up his travel story in 1,000 words or less would not only be an impossible, but an unfair task for him. Therefore, I have chosen to fall on the sword of leaving out any key details. I aim to capture who Don is and what he means to both travel and the Travelers’ Century Club.

Like many of us, it is not inaccurate to say that Don is most proud of his measure of accomplishments outlined in his lists which includes the TCC list. It may seem quantitative at first and you might think, “But what did he possibly see?” I can assure the reader that Don has not recently discovered travel, nor has it been a slow burn until a retirement itch to get things done. Don has been at it since 1950, when he was six years old. He writes: “I started to collect stamps to realize how many countries there were and within a few years, I could identify stamps from most countries.”

Don has said, “Curiosity, a sense of adventure, and admiration for people of accomplishment are my core values. For as long as I can remember, I have always enjoyed history and seeing firsthand where history was created. Sometimes I walk battlefields. Whether that is visiting the 621 World Heritage Sites, which can be thrilling or not, standing in the presence of greatness of any kind is a pinnacle experience for me.”

This quest and these notches don’t solely define Don Parrish, but provide a context to his passive leadership as a premiere posterperson for travel, the TCC, and every traveler.

He is representative of our thirst to understanding humanity — seeking the answer to the quintessential question, “Why is that?”

So you want to know more about Don? Unlike most of us who require a night of whiskey and banter to peel the onion on who we are, Don has made it easy by creating his website Filled with a potpourri (a polite way of calling it a mish-mash) of information, Don shares fascinating genealogical connections through his family tree, a history of dining with people of prominence and still documents his visits to lesser-known islands to be among some of his greatest accomplishments. This is where he lists his favorite essays and I think back to my favorite short story, The Pine Barrens, by the American, John McPhee. I still must go to New Jersey!

“Looking back over my life at some key transformative events, these now seem logical and natural. These permanently changed my sense of the possible and my understanding of how big and interesting the world is.”

Don graduated from the University of Texas in 1966 and was immediately recruited by Bell Labs, a dream company. It was the top research and development company in the world. A job perfectly matched for Don, Bell Labs paid for his Master’s degree in Computer Science at a time before the US landed on the moon. “I loved my job, And when I retired 30 years later, I was recruited back for another five years.” Yes!

At Iwo Jima in 2008, crouched in the middle-left among notable TCC members including World Travelers (completed TCC list) Audrey Walsworth and Ron Endeman and Diamond members Judy Endeman, Kevin Hughes and Christine Kloner.

“A pioneer in modern telecommunications, Bell Labs had the only two electronic switching systems (ESS) in the world in service when I started and AT&T was just beginning.”

Two weeks of vacation per year was the norm in 1971, but recognizing his value, Don knew well before we ever dreamed up our own travel strategy that negotiating six weeks of vacation was necessary for a trip around the world. A game changer as he continued to travel to visit different regions year by year.

In 1977, Bell Labs made a historic shift to enter the international telephone switching market. Appointed planning manager to this complex, unstructured assignment, Don spent 24 years of his career on telephone projects outside the USA, but managed to visit all 50 states by 1980. A high-capacity digital gateway switch sold to Singapore led to installations in 42 other countries. More travel! Don’s idea of sending a gateway switch in a trailer got Kuwait quickly connected to the world after Desert Storm.

However, his most famous market entry was in the tech-forward country of Japan, where he made 60 trips over a span of 60 months. “Mission impossible!” Even though Don spent five years overseas on business travel, he estimates another eight years on personal travel.

Don’s engagement with people is best explained in the story of the 1995 marathon when he got invited to join three young Japanese men in Honolulu. Not having trained as he was working 80 to 90 hours a week, Don stopped in Hawaii for a well-deserved rest, not a marathon. The group met to determine everything they needed and took a one-hour drive of the course!

That night, Don tapped into his computer skills and created an Excel spreadsheet, surprising the Japanese men the next morning with a laser-printed spreadsheet of the clock time for a six-, seven- (their goal) and eight-hour pace for each of the mile markers. This allowed the runners to monitor their pace with a glance. Don was first to finish at 6 hours and 52 minutes. The pace setter who failed the previous year by two minutes, finished with two minutes to spare. Don was convinced his spreadsheet and a pep talk made the difference.

“In April 2001, I made my first trip with the TCC. It changed my life. It was to Cuba, which was not easy to visit at that time. It was my first time to meet systematic/extreme travelers including Herb Goebels and learn the basics. It was a joy talking to these veterans. And I saw how the TCC could gain access to the equivalent of the US ambassador in the former US embassy. A key travel lesson learned is to talk to experienced travelers and get their tips and insights.”

This moment propelled Don Parrish. His travels soared to a stratospheric level becoming one of the world’s most prominent travelers. Always recognized by friends Harry Mitsidis and Charles Veley, Don also boasts the MTP Pioneers Award as the #1 Traveler — a permanent recognition of foundational travel.

Don has some advice to share: “If you realize that your Plan A has failed, quickly work to create and execute a Plan B. Do not waste precious time in a country lamenting Plan A. If you quickly substitute a Plan B your day is not wasted.”

Traveling with Jagannathan Srinivasaraghavan (left) to BIOT in 2017, rudimentary signs mark the Global Traveler accomplishment for both Don Parrish (center) and Bob Bonifas (right) who completed the TCC list together.

Last year in August 2022, past president JoAnn Schwartz perfectly introduced Don as a speaker on the Virtual Exploration series: “Don is one of the very top travelers in the world and we are very honored to have him as a member of the Travelers’ Century Club.” Amen!

Ending as we began, Thomas Jefferson concluded his Essay on George Washington by saying, “On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him … in an everlasting remembrance.”

Bold, by any account, to bestow on any person, Don Parrish’s legacy in the travel community is fundamental, inspiring and rooted in his profound understanding of humanity.