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Celebration of life for MARTA’s Jeff Parker a plea for more mental health support

By Maria Saporta

An overflow crowd attended the Celebration of Life memorial service for Jeffrey Parker at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church Saturday morning.

Jeff Parker, general manager of MARTA since 2018, took his life on Jan. 14.

During the thoughtful service, Parker’s family and friends urged everyone to talk about mental illness and to support each other through good times and bad.

Erin Harlow-Parker, his widow, showed extraordinary strength and resolve when she spoke from the heart about their first date and how soon after, he asked her to go out on a walk, the code 36 years ago for going steady.

“Like any marriage, we had our ups and downs,” said Harlow-Parker, adding that until two weeks ago, she couldn’t have imagined her “life without Jeff,” calling him her best friend.

“Feelings are not good or bad; they just are,” Harlow-Parker said while urging everyone to be aware of their own emotional health. “Talk pro-actively about how you’re feeling. Talk actively about mental illness. Suicide does not have to be an option. You don’t have to have all the answers.”

Then she urged everyone attending the service to talk to their legislators about improving access to mental health services and to remove the stigma around mental illness.

“The last two weeks have been the hardest of my life,” Harlow-Parker said, adding that the love and support she’s received from family and friends – especially from their two daughters – Gabrielle and Isabella has been valuable.

She spoke about how much she would miss Parker’s goofy jokes, and how she would do anything to be able to hear him make one more goofy joke.

“Don’t suffer in silence,” she continued. “Push for change in mental health awareness.”

Rev. Kimberly Jackson, a state senator, heard the message when she told people at the service that “you cannot let the way that Jeff died erase the totality of his life. Jeff’s life was nothing tragic at all. His life was beautiful.”

Jeff Parker

Jeff Parker was named CEO and general manager of MARTA in 2018. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Jackson then talked about how those who knew Jeff Parker are asking questions on what they could have done to prevent him from taking his life.

“I’m here today to let you know unequivocally that this is not your fault; Jeff’s death is not your fault. Move past the feelings of guilt,” Jackson said. “Reach out if you’re struggling. Ask for help. Some of you are sitting in seats of power.” When it comes to improving access to mental health, “I urge you to use your voices.”

After the service, former MARTA General Manager Keith Parker stopped to share his thoughts.

“It is a crushing job,” Keith Parker said about running MARTA. “People are pointing at you from all directions. One of the most difficult parts about the job is that when you’re feeling overwhelmed, nobody wants to hear it.”

Keith Parker, who is now president and CEO of Goodwill of North Georgia, said he had had lunch with Jeff Parker two weeks before he took his life. They would get together for lunch about once a quarter to catch up and compare notes.

“He was in better spirits than I had ever seen him,” said Keith Parker, who joked about how they shared the same last name. “We would say we are brothers from another mother.”

St. Luke’s was filled with many elected officials and people who worked with Jeff Parker in the transportation industry, including many current and former MARTA leaders, such as Nat Ford, a former general manager who is now CEO of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority; and Paul Grether, who is now with the Long Island Railroad.

Russell McMurry, commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Transportation, still was having a hard time accepting Parker’s death. They had scheduled several meetings to work on transportation issues, and McMurry had no clue that Parker wouldn’t be there.

Ribbon for Suicide Prevention Awareness.

“I didn’t think Jeff’s jokes were goofy,” McMurry added. “I thought they were funny.”

The most poignant part about the service was how family and friends were able to turn their pain into a powerful message to help others who are struggling with mental illness and for those who are suffering, to seek help.

Everyone was given a suicide prevention ribbon to wear as they entered the church.

And the back page of the program included a scan of a QR code to donate to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, Georgia Chapter – as a way to honor Jeff Parker’s life.

If you or someone you love is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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3 Comments

  1. Eric January 31, 2022 11:55 am

    I am at a loss, though, as to why that particular mode was chosen.Report

    Reply
  2. Luis Manuel Ramírez February 1, 2022 7:06 pm

    Atlanta was my home for over 20 years. As CEO and GM of the MBTA in Boston, I was fortunate to meet him a couple of times. In fact, his birthday and mine are only a few days apart, both October 1966. I have witnessed the devastation that occurs in a family when someone takes their own life. The news of his death affected me greatly. I know what it means to be under a tremendous amount of pressure running a public transit agency. His family and colleagues are in my thoughts.Report

    Reply

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