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Longtime Preston first selectman remembered for steady resolve, great cooking

Preston — Parke Spicer led Preston through bitter battles that “split the town in half,” but he always seemed to come out shaking hands with everyone, former political colleagues recalled Friday.

Spicer, 83, who served as first selectman from 1983 to 1995 and held numerous other town positions and volunteered for civic events, died Jan. 8 of pneumonia brought on by COVID-19, his daughter Michele Spicer said.

Spicer had suffered a mild heart attack, but twice tested negative for COVID-19 at the Backus Hospital, his daughter said. A week later, he had pneumonia and tested positive.

Michele and her sister, Beverly Bordner, moved into their father's home to care for him. COVID-19 spread to both their families and to sister Donna Milnarik’s family. Only their brother, Parke II, has been spared thus far.

“It was horrible,” Michele Spicer said. “Bev and I did the best we could. We set our alarms for every two hours to turn him and give him treatment, but his lungs just filled up. We’re glad we took him home, because he wanted to come home and see his family and not be isolated.”

Well-wishers have been stopping by at Parke’s Place Family Restaurant, founded by Spicer in 1997 on Route 12 in Preston and now at 678 Colonel Ledyard Highway, Ledyard, to remember her father, Michele Spicer said.

“My father loved this place,” Michele Spicer, who runs the restaurant, said Friday. “To just sit here and talk about what we were going to make and what we should make.”

Spicer’s tenure as first selectman was dominated by issues that eclipsed this small farming town — selection of a Route 12 site for the regional trash incinerator and the gripping fear that the newly empowered Mashantucket Pequot Tribe could annex thousands of acres of land in Preston, Ledyard and North Stonington.

Current and former town officials praised the Republican and fiscally conservative Spicer as a mentor and friend. He was devoted to his hometown while embracing regional solutions. Spicer, with his booming voice was easily heard in crowded meeting venues, but he rarely raised his voice in anger, colleagues said, and he maintained friendships with people on both sides.

“You find someone who would say something bad about him, you give them my name, because it has to be a lie,” former Ledyard Mayor Joseph Lozier said Friday.

“Parke is quite the guy,” current Republican Selectman Kenneth Zachem said. “He is my first major mentor in dealing with people, besides my parents. He could talk to people. He treated everyone the same, whether you agreed with him or not. He dealt with some major issues. The tribes and the incinerator split the town in half.”

Democratic Selectman Jerry Grabarek served on the Board of Selectmen with Spicer during the incinerator fight in the late 1980s.

“Parke’s whole family was extremely kind to my whole family for many, many years,” Grabarek said. “Nobody knew more about Preston history than Parke. We will miss him dearly. My sympathies to his entire family.”

First Selectwoman Sandra Allyn-Gauthier said the town should honor Spicer, suggesting planting a tree in his name at Preston Community Park.

Robert Congdon, Spicer’s successor for 24 years until 2019, suggested naming a Town Hall conference room or a road in Spicer’s honor.

“That road that goes into the Town Hall could be Spicer Boulevard,” Lozier agreed, and added: “And that whole area from the Pequot Bridge to the Ledyard line could be named in honor of Parke.”

Congdon credited Spicer for urging him to run for first selectman when Spicer was ready to retire in 1995. Congdon spent three weeks shadowing Spicer to learn daily town government. After Spicer retired, he served as registrar of voters.

Congdon recalled how the incinerator “split the town right in half,” with some people vowing to fight it and others resigned that the small town couldn’t win and should cut the best deal.

“There was a point at which time the Siting Council said it’s going to go there, and Hartford said it was going to go there, whether you liked it or not,” Congdon said. “You had to try and do the best you could for your town, and Parke did the best he could over that.”

Spicer, Lozier and North Stonington First Selectman Nicholas Mullane became a formidable trio locally, in Hartford and even in Washington, D.C., as they fought the potential that the federally recognized Mashantucket Pequot Tribe could take so much land off the tax rolls. Lozier recalled going to Washington to hire the powerful law firm Perkins Coie and brought the information back to Mullane and Spicer.

"I knew it was going to be costly and I talked to Nick and to Parke and asked if they would go in with me," Lozier said. "Nick had about 1,000 acres involved, and Parke had probably an acre and half, and Parke went in full."

Attorney Frank Manfredi served as town attorney for Preston during the two big fights and became close friends with Spicer. But friendship and professional expertise didn’t always mean Manfredi would win an argument with Spicer, a fellow Navy veteran.

“He was a straight shooter,” Manfredi said. “You always knew where you stood with Parke. I would give him advice and he would say: ‘I’ve heard what you’ve got to say, and now I’m going to do what I’m going to do.’”

Manfredi said political affiliations didn't matter to Spicer.

“I don’t think he cared much if it was Republican or Democratic, if it was good for the town, if he thought something was right, I don’t think he could be strayed off his course,” Manfredi said.

Being conservative did not mean Spicer wasn’t innovative, the now retired Mullane said. North Stonington, Ledyard and Preston were the first to hold joint household hazardous waste days, Mullane said. The program went so well that the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resources Recovery Authority soon took it over.

And Spicer could cook, a passion he learned as a cook in the Navy. He volunteered for more than 50 years cooking fish and chips and making coleslaw for the Lenten fish fry at St. James Episcopal Church. He cooked for the Preston City Fair, and made corned beef and cabbage for the VFW.

Spicer opened Parke’s Place on Route 12 in 1997. The eatery moved to Ledyard in 2017 when its lease was not renewed.

“He could cook liver and onions better than anyone,” said Lozier, who stopped in at Parke's Place on Friday.

c.bessette@theday.com

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