Larry Parrish, longtime Riverside County Chief Executive Officer who passed away at his home in Rancho Mirage after a short illness on July 6, was remembered by friends and colleagues as a born leader, a mentor, a man of boundless humor who could lighten up even the most contentious of situations.
Parrish served as the county’s top executive from 1992 until his retirement in 2008. He also served a stint as the county’s interim CEO shortly after retiring.
In his position overseeing the county, Parrish managed the budget, worked with the five elected district county supervisors and department heads – plus elected department leaders including Sheriff and District Attorney. It’s a heavy lift for the most accomplished of managers, but by all accounts, Parrish was the best in the business, according to those who knew him well.
“He was a tremendous communicator and very articulate, one of those guys that just had a knack for leadership,” said Alan Crogan, who worked as the chief probation officer under Parrish in Santa Barbara and Riverside counties. “I always remember what Abe Lincoln said: ‘Almost all men can handle adversity, but a true test of their character is to give them power.’ There are so many personalities, so many different skills, to get them all to basically be cohesive together in working for a common goal – he could do that,” Crogan said.
He was also a graceful, caring, and devoted friend, whose impact was felt deeply by those closest to him.
“There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Larry Parrish,” said Kay Hazen, a long-time local business leader whose friendship with Parrish spanned three decades. “He was a man of intellect, style and poise. He was thoughtful, direct – always calling things as they were.”
“Then County Supervisor Corky Larson introduced me to Larry the week after he arrived,” Hazen said. “I worked at Desert Hospital in those days and Corky and I had been scheming about ways to improve access to care for local residents. At the meeting, Larry was charming and polite. As the conversation wrapped up, he turned to Corky and said, ‘I don’t stand a chance against the two of you, do I?’”
Parrish’s career in public service spanned 40 years and four counties, beginning in Santa Cruz where he served as a probation officer. He was hired as Chief Probation Officer for Santa Barbara County in 1979. Eight months later, that county board of supervisors hired him as their Chief Administrative Officer – a position in which he served until he was recruited by Orange County to be its CEO in 1985.
He spent four years in the OC dealing with financial shortages, jail overcrowding, and disputes over housing development and other problems. “It does wear on you,” he told the Los Angeles Times at the time. “After you put so many nuts on so many wheels, sooner or later you want to get off the ‘assembly’ line.”
He left in 1989 when Dennis Carpenter & Associates lured him to Sacramento to join their lobbying team. However, Larry’s real passion was local government. A few years later, Riverside County came calling.
“I was involved in recruiting him for the county, for the job that he had there as the chief executive,” said Norm Roberts. “He had a great sense of humor, he was brilliant, and he just got a lot done. He knew what he was doing and made everyone around him that I knew feel very comfortable.”
Rick Daniels, who worked as a city manager, and as chief executive with the Salton Sea Authority and Coachella Valley Economic Partnership (CVEP) during Parrish’s tenure with Riverside County, called Parrish, “one of the most impactful people of my life – both personally and professionally. He was one of my heroes, one of my role models. I tried to emulate him.”
“I was always impressed that he would live in the Coachella Valley as the County administrator based in Riverside, Daniels said. “I thought, ‘finally, we’re going to have somebody that understands the Coachella Valley,’ because we’re often forgotten.”
Daniels said Parrish was a true believer in CVEP and the mission to diversify the economy of the Coachella Valley, which was heavily tilted toward tourism and agriculture.
“He made sure that we got county funding for economic development, and that meant he didn’t have to hire somebody out in our area, that we could tend to our economic development of the valley,” Daniels said.
Supervisors share stories
Tom Mullen, who served as Riverside County Supervisor from 1995 to 2003, said Parrish’s breadth of knowledge spanned across city, county, and state government.
“Larry really understood the intricacies of both the state government, which funds all counties, and the financial aspect of it, both from the chief executive officer – budgetary – as well as from an operational perspective as a chief probation officer in a large county,” Mullen said. “What really made him so effective was his absolute library of practical knowledge – you add in the humor which always did diffuse tense and potentially explosive situations. He just got people laughing. He knew important and serious things, but he never took himself seriously. It was never about Larry, it was really always about the public, it was about the employees, and what he did was to help guide the elected officials in moving toward decisions that were responsible decisions, and understandable decisions. That takes real talent and Larry had that.”
During his tenure, the county’s population grew by nearly one million people. That’s a lot of growth to manage.
When he took over as county executive in 1992, Supervisor Bob Buster said that things were “a mess” at the county.
“The previous board had approved tens of thousands of new residential units in the southwest county, some in the desert and in the western county, for which there weren’t enough fees to pay for the necessary roads and other facilities, libraries, parks,” said Buster, who took office in January 1993 and whose district included Temecula and Murietta. “These approvals ran on for twenty years or so – it was a de facto urbanization of the unincorporated areas of the counties that took place without the funding and without the mechanisms in place to be able to provide the necessary policing and road improvements.”
At the time, the county had taxing districts in place, and when delinquencies occurred, these tax assessments were borne by existing homeowners who were appalled and outraged. He said he got an earful from his constituents, who were stuck paying for developers’ delinquencies.
“I would frequently face very upset homeowners that were getting taxed because developers had not fulfilled their responsibilities to develop the rest of the areas where they were in,” Buster said. “It was a complicated mess. Larry Parrish really did a superb job of getting on top of this and turning things around – he didn’t solve all the problems of course – it went on for years – but he was able to create a leadership staff underneath him – and win their confidence and I think the confidence of a lot of other rank and file employees in the county, that the county had a new direction and the county was attempting to quickly adjust and do the necessary planning to cope with this growth. For example, we did a lot of things to cure the imbalances and inequities in these taxing districts that affected many existing residents. We were able to begin to solve these issues.”
Shortly after John Tavaglione was first elected Riverside County Supervisor in November 1994, he went to see the county’s executive officer.
“I just fell in love with the guy the minute I met him – just an amazing guy,” Tavaglione said. “Let me put it this way – it’s a term used too often – they truly did break the mold when they put Larry together. A man who could be strong, but yet gentle – took care of things the way they should be.”
Tavaglione, who served as a supervisor through 2018, was the county’s main representative for the California Association of Counties – ultimately serving as president of the organization.
“Through those twenty-something years of doing that, and then seeing most of the state’s 58 county CEOs – there’s no doubt Larry stood out as ‘the one.’ Not only was he so highly respected by each and every one of them across the states and other parts of the country, but he was also a mentor to so many.”
“What I loved about the guy, he had an amazing sense of humor,” Tavaglione added. “At the dais, I was district two and I would sit next to Larry – I would always sit next to the CEO or if I was chair because we rotated chairs every year – so I’d sit next to him either way, which was so much fun because, during the very challenging Eagle Mountain hearings, one way you get through those very tough, long hearings is through humor. Sometimes it’s under your breath. Larry and I would joke – it just made the day, it helped us to get through it – I’ll never forget.”
Parrish could wield his sharp wit to effect and could fire off witty salvos that would result in an explosion of laughter by those within earshot. These were fondly referred to as “Larry-isms” by his friends. Hazen called this trait Parrish’s “superpower.”
Tom Kirk, who currently serves as executive director of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG), shared a story about a meeting he had with Parrish when Kirk was executive director of the Salton Sea Authority.
“Incisive is the word that comes to mind when I think about Larry’s leadership style,” Kirk said. “I recall former CVWD (Coachella Valley Water District) President Tellis Codekas and I meeting in Larry’s office to express our frustration with some County bureaucratic process. Upon learning about the bottleneck, Larry strung together a few choice swear words on the phone with the relevant staff. The problem was immediately solved. We were both impressed and neither of us probably heard those “adjectives” combined in such a colorful way.”
Bob Howdyshell worked as Director of Purchasing and Fleet Services for the County of Riverside. As a retired U.S. Navy captain, with 25 years of service, he had never worked in a local government organization. He said Larry took a chance and hired him for the position in 1994.
“The one Larry-ism I often recall is the following: ‘When you crawl under the covers, you just never know who will get the pillow,’ Howdyshell said. “I’m not sure if my understanding of this was what he intended.”
“Larry was a man of few words,” Howdyshell added. “His leadership style was, ‘do your job and I will leave you alone.’ However, he was always supportive when you needed him. I remember one day I had a group of approximately one hundred purchasing agents from across California at an annual conference in Riverside. I had scheduled one of our county supervisors to give the opening welcome address. Something happened and the supervisor didn’t show. In a panic, I called Larry at his office to see if he would be willing to fill in. Without hesitation, he said he would fill in. On a moment’s notice, he did a masterful welcome with his normal flair.”
Just two months ago, Alan and his wife Linda, and Larry and his wife Kathie were having dinner at the Lavender Bistro in La Quinta.
“We’re at the restaurant and chit-chatting and laughing up a storm, having a wonderful time,” Crogan said. “We walked back to the cars and Larry said, ‘OK, when are we getting back together?’ We said, as soon as we get back from Arizona, we’ll call you. It was like that every time. Whenever we would leave, we were always making a plan to get back together. We’re building a home in Arizona – we planned on being back in the middle of August and we were already making plans to have dinner together. It was a total shock to all of us.”
“There couldn’t have been a dearer friend,” Crogan said. “In the purest sense, there aren’t too many people that are a ‘second self’ in your life that you’ve met and you want to be around.”
Hazen echoed Crogan’s sentiments. “For me, Larry was and remains forever – a gift and an inspiration. We won’t soon see the likes of him again.”
Parrish, who was 82 at the time of his passing, was married to his wife Kathie for 36 years. He is also survived by his daughter (Nancy), son (David), friend and ex-wife (Lois), and two grandchildren (Hal and Gabe).