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Celebrating a ‘Municipal Treasure’: Kathryn Parsons Willis

Gwinnett County recently adopted a new tag line but maybe county leaders should have checked with ­ Kathryn Parsons Willis first.

The 2018 Gwinnett Chamber Citizen of the Year has a dead-on description for this community she loves so much: “Big and progressive, but still down-home and family.” Perfect, right?

Kathryn and a host of other community, civic and corporate citizens were honored by the Gwinnett Chamber at its annual dinner for their outstanding contributions and service to Gwinnett.

For Kathryn, it’s an honor that couldn’t mean more. “I couldn’t believe it. I was embarrassed at first, but thrilled. But I’m still in disbelief.”

However, while Kathryn might not have seen this coming, it’s safe to say that when it comes to singling out one individual for service, Kathryn Willis is a consensus choice. Her list of honors and accolades is extensive and well deserved. Her commitment to Gwinnett Medical Center is so significant, that she was the first to receive the GMC Foundation’s Legacy Award.

‘We were raised this way’

At 87, Kathryn’s story is both a window into the history of Gwinnett and an exceptional example of generational community service. Remarkably, Kathryn’s father, Calvin Parsons, was the 1982 Citizen of the Year, making this honor all the more special. Her mother, too, played an instrumental role in the community.
“We were raised up this way,” relates Kathryn. “It’s been a part of our family all the way back. We had good guidance.”
Kathryn’s roots in Gwinnett and in Duluth could not be deeper. Her great, great, great grandfather, Evan Howell, founded Duluth in 1871. Her home, just off Main Street in Duluth, sits on the land that was once home to her grandfather’s cotton gin. Her family’s history as Gwinnett merchants dates back to the late 1800’s and her parents, Calvin and Kate Parsons, continued the family livelihood with the Parsons family stores.
Kathryn, with her famous work ethic, worked fulltime for 62 years, running Parsons of Cumming from 1987 until her retirement in 2015. “I just loved the work and loved the store,” she says.

The heart and inspiration of Gwinnett Medical

Aside from her family, her volunteerism provides the greatest reward. “You may think you’re the one helping, but all the rewards come back to you.”

While she has devoted her time to many organizations, three stand out – Gwinnett Medical Center, Duluth First United Methodist Church and the Duluth Fall Festival Committee.

Kathryn credits her mother for her commitment to Gwinnett Medical Center. Her mother was an enduring volunteer and community leader for Joan Glancy Hospital, which became part of GMC, and Kathryn continued the tradition.

“Four generations of my family have been actively involved with the hospital system. We know what a legacy it is and how rewarding our work to grow it can be,” she explains.

“I was just drawn to do anything for the hospital,” Kathryn says, and she did.

She retired from the GMC board after 22 years of service and has been called the “heart and inspiration of GMC.” Her involvement began at the Joan Glancy facility in Duluth. She is quick to acknowledge the tremendous positive impact that both the now Glancy Rehabilitation Center and the Duluth campus of GMC have had on Duluth. “It meant the world to this area,” she says. She remains on the board of the Gwinnett Medical Center Foundation and her fund raising skills are legendary. She’s been known to graciously tell potential donors, “I want your money now… and also when you die.”

Making a mark on Duluth

Kathryn’s vision and drive was an undeniable force in the successful development of Duluth’s downtown business district. She served on the Downtown Development Authority for over 20 years. Kathryn is the founder of the Duluth Fall Festival, insisting that every dollar raised – now more than $3 million — goes to Downtown Duluth. The Town Green and vibrant city center are very much the recipients of Kathryn’s commitment to her hometown.

Perhaps her biggest point of pride is her work for her church. She is life-long member of Duluth First United Methodist Church. She’s served on virtually every committee there, taught the new member class for more than 40 years, and helped lead the fundraising for the sanctuary and family life center. The church’s 38 stained glass windows are another testament to her fundraising prowess and are a joyful reflection to her.

A resolution passed by the Georgia state senate to honor Kathryn describes her as a “person of magnanimous strengths with an unimpeachable reputation for integrity, intelligence, fairness and kindness” and calls her life “a salute to service.”

Kathryn is tremendously proud that her children have adopted the family tradition of community service. All four are active volunteers, she says, and are intent on passing this family value along to the seven grandchildren and soon-to-be three great grandchildren.

Kathryn’s advice on this is simple. “Volunteer where you are. Get in there and help. Do all that you possibly can.”