Southampton scrambles to fulfill farmer’s $2.5M bequest for new senior center

SOUTHAMPTON — Within the last 15 years, several councils on aging throughout the region have built and opened the doors to brand new senior centers to accommodate the increasing senior population.

Last year alone, two new centers opened in South Hadley and Longmeadow, featuring a number of accommodations for multiple generations of seniors including larger spaces for exercise classes and several pickleball courts, respectively.

And with more than a third of its growing population over the age of 60, the Southampton Council on Aging has aims to be one of the next agencies to unveil a new senior center — that is if it can establish a final plan for the renovation or construction of a new senior center in a little over a year.

In July 2021, the Council on Aging received a copy of a will from the estate of a recently deceased Southampton resident stating that he had left a substantial bequest to the town for the construction of a new senior center, according to Joan Linnehan, director of the Southampton Council on Aging.

The late resident, David “Red” Parsons, died May 17 at the age of 86. His second cousin, Dale Canon of Easthampton, was appointed as Parsons’ personal representative of his estate, per his will, but Linnehan said that appointment took another two months.

It wasn’t until February that the town learned that the conservative amount of the bequest was $2.5 million.

To say that the town was surprised might be an understatement, considering by most accounts, he had never spent any time at the senior center. But it turns out that those close to him were just as surprised.

“I was shocked,” said Canon. “I had no idea he had that kind of money.”

Who was Red?

Parsons was born on April 10, 1935, to Phillip and Evelyn Parsons. He attended Sheldon School in Southampton and graduated from Easthampton High School in 1952. Having inherited his father’s dark red hair, many of his friends called him “Red.”

He also held a degree in physics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which led him to a brief stint working as an engineer in California.

In December 1956, Parsons entered the U.S. Army and was assigned to the Army Chemical Center near Baltimore, where he spent two years.

From there, he returned home, resuming what Canon describes as Parsons’ greatest joy in life: farming with the Searle family at Wolfe Hill Farm in Southampton.

“He enjoyed the day-to-day life of farming … milking, gardening and even delivering calves,” she said. “He would get up early in the morning, head to the farm to cook breakfast on a one-burner hotplate and then spend his days doing what he loved most in life.”

Oftentimes, people could catch him eating a burger from Wendy’s while watching the cows and looking out toward the horizon. When he wasn’t doing that, neighbors told Canon that if the windows were open during the summer, they could hear him watching Red Sox games and occasionally cussing at the TV.

He collected coins and enjoyed studying and investing in the stock market.

She described him as the “strong, silent type,” and as someone who was content being a little reclusive.

“He did have a good sense of humor, though. Anyone that knows me knows that I can talk a lot and that I talk fast. He used to tell me all the time: ‘For Christ’s sake, slow down’,” she recalled with a laugh.

As he got older, Canon would pick up groceries for him each week. Todd Jarosz, who described Parsons as a very private man, also helped out, often treating Parsons like a grandfather. Jarosz and both of his parents helped out Parsons most of their lives, on the Searle farm.

Near the end of his life, Parsons fell and broke his neck at home one day and ended up receiving care at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, according to Canon. While he was receiving care, she and others worked to renovate a bathroom for him to make it more handicapped-accessible. Unfortunately, Parsons contracted COVID-19 and died shortly afterward.

As she and others began going through his belongings once Parsons died, Canon said she feels like she began to learn more about who her cousin really was, having found lists that included charities that Parsons donated to regularly. For someone who lived so modestly, she would have never guessed how much money he had or gave to others.

“Every so often, when people make donations they’ll get a request for more donations. I swear, he gave to almost every one of them. It was amazing — he gave (money) to everything. He was so, so generous,” she said. “It kind of makes me sad, the way he lived. I don’t think he ever wanted to leave the house, but he could have used that money to live more comfortably. I mean, he had to know just how much he had.”

Canon and Jarosz were among those listed in Parsons’ will, bequeathing them each $100,000.

“I am very surprised,” said Jarosz. “He never said anything about his money or that he’d give it to the town. He was a very private guy who didn’t say a whole lot.”

Red’s will

After covering the costs of his funeral and any administrative fees and debts, one of the first items Parsons bequeathed in his will was embroidered samplers to the town’s Historical Society. Parsons also gave the entity the opportunity to sort through antiquities and collectibles in his home that they deemed significant.

“My personal representative is instructed to donate any and all additional personal property items that may be of further interest to the Southampton Historical Society, all items to be acknowledged as in memory of the Phillip Parsons Family,” his will states.

Tammy Walunas, president of the Historical Society, swooned as she reflected on all of the items of historical significance the Historical Society was able to preserve. It took the group roughly two weeks to evaluate and remove the items, including trunks, handmade photo frames, detailed military records, clothing and watering cans. They also discovered a hidden basement in the High Street home that contained a lot of old tools and fishing poles.

“There were hundreds of donations. There would be bookshelves that contained several first editions and inside of the books were photos of importance to him tucked inside of them that had these fabulous notes, detailing everything about them,” said Walunas. “We will have a dedicated room in the Clark-Chapman House Museum when we re-open.”

Parsons also bequeathed $100,000 to the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Springfield “in memory of my mother, Alice Coe Parsons’ brother, Leslie Phineass Coe.” The pediatric health care system provides orthopedic, spine, burn and other forms of specialty care.

In addition to the other smaller monetary amounts he bequeathed, Parsons left the remainder of his entire estate, including real estate, to fund the study of building a new senior center or an addition onto its current space within a portion of the former Larrabee School.

However, Parsons stipulated in his will that the final study for a new facility not only include adequate handicapped parking, but also be completed within two years of his death.

“Given the time-sensitive nature of the bequest, the COA board chair Janet Cain formed an exploratory committee, a subcommittee of the COA board, to identify preliminary issues,” said Linnehan.

If it’s not complete by then, the money will be split up as follows: 25% to the Shriners Hospitals for Children; 25% to the First Congregational Church of Southampton; 25% to the Southampton Historical Society; and 25% to the Southampton Council on Aging. All of the money may be used at the discretion of each entity, but be made in memory of David H. “Red” Parsons.

Time is ticking

With a little more than one year left, Linnehan and Cain recently gave a brief presentation to the Select Board to describe the circumstances as well as the urgency to form a feasibility study committee before Parsons’ May 17, 2023, deadline.

“It’s a really exciting opportunity to grow and expand,” said Linnehan in an interview. “Mr. Parsons had such generous foresight.”

Since October, Linnehan said, the exploratory committee has met seven times and toured several senior centers in the area.

“Currently, we have 2,000 square feet of open space to conduct business … Hadley, which has a similar-sized community to ours, has a 10,000-square-foot building. Erving, which has 350 seniors in town, has a space that’s 6,000 square feet,” said Linnehan, who noted that each center’s director said that their attendance has tripled since new facilities were built. “Build it, and they will come.”

After some discussion, the Select Board approved the forming of the Ad Hoc Senior Center Building Feasibility Committee. The committee is seeking five volunteers for a nine-person panel that will determine the size, layout and location of the new center, determine whether any town buildings could be repurposed, identify key features that must be included in a center design and work with Town Administrator Ed Gibson in drafting a statement of work for a planning or design consultant.

The committee will also provide information as required to the selected consulting firm regarding site location and interior layout, and complete the feasibility study.

The committee will meet bi-weekly and include Cain, Linnehan, Gibson and Select Board member Maureen “Reeny” Groden. Both Linnehan and Gibson, who do not reside in town, will serve as non-voting members.

Residents with backgrounds in engineering and building construction and real estate development are encouraged to apply. The five additional voting members will be appointed by the Select Board.

Individuals interested in being appointed must submit the town’s volunteer application form at accompanied by a cover note explaining in more detail their relevant experience and their interest in being a member of this committee. Applications must be received by Wednesday, March 23 at noon.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at

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