Kellis E. Parker, a noted legal scholar and the first full-time black law professor at Columbia, died on Oct. 10 at St. Luke's Hospital. He was 58.
The cause of death was acute respiratory distress syndrome, which struck him last month, according to his daughter Kimberly.
Parker joined the law faculty of Columbia in 1972 and was known for a range of stances, from his outspoken stance against racial discrimination in academia to embracing jazz as a framework for understanding law.
But more than his numerous achievements in academia, his students and colleagues will remember Parker for his warm and welcoming personality.
"For Kellis, it was nice to be important," said Nadine Baker, Parker's faculty assistant for the last six years. "But it was infinitely more important for him to be nice."
Added Law Dean David Leebron: "We will deeply miss the optimism, enthusiasm, and generosity he brought to every endeavor."
Born in Kinston, N.C., Parker's civil rights activism began at an early age. As head of the band at his high school, which was segregated, he asked the local Chamber of Commerce to change its rules after he protested about his fellow students being placed at the back of a parade.
Parker was said to have been stunned that they agreed. "Nothing had happened in that town to make you think anything would change," he recalled in a later interview with The New York Law Journal.
That victory would be the first of many.
In 1960, Parker was one of five black students to integrate the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A year later, he and Allard Lowenstein, a fellow student and future member of the United States House of Representatives, organized demonstrators in an effort to desegregate the campus' facilities.
After receiving his undergraduate degree, Parker attended Howard University Law School in Washington, where he graduated at the top of his class and was editor-in-chief of the Howard Law Journal.
Parker then took a clerkship with Spottswood W. Robinson III, a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Planning to return to North Carolina to practice law, Parker instead took Robinson's suggestion to attempt teaching. He accepted a position at the University of California at Davis, heading various clinical programs and earning tenure in just three years.
Parker's next stop was Morningside Heights, where he became the first black professor at Columbia Law School at the age of 30 and spent much of the next 28 years promoting diversity throughout the campus.
"He might have been the first African-American law professor," said Conrad Johnson, a clinical professor at the Law School since 1989. "But he made sure that he wasn't the last."
In 1977, two years after he received tenure, Parker left Columbia to become director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
But he returned a year later, while retaining the position at the defense fund.
In 1994, Parker was named to an endowed position, the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law. He also taught seminars at Howard Law School and served as a faculty adviser to Howard's Law Journal.
Parker's colleagues at the Law School and throughout the University were consistently amazed at his desire to make every student and faculty member feel as if they were a part of his extended family.
"So many students can't think of [Columbia] without thinking of Kellis," said Johnson, who considered Parker a mentor. "And many wouldn't have made it through without his encouragement, guidance, and support."
When Robert O'Meally, the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English, first came to Barnard 12 years ago, Parker introduced himself to O'Meally almost immediately. And in a short while, they were more than mere professional collaborators; they were good friends.
"He felt a responsibility to reach out to everyone in that way," said O'Meally, who would teach two of Parker's daughters. "He was so welcoming."
O'Meally's story of Parker is not unique, though.
"I often had to kick students out of his office," Baker said. "Everyone wanted to talk to him and he was more than willing to talk to everybody."
Parker's primary area of expertise was contract law, but his intellect propelled it in new directions. His 1975 case book, Modern Judicial Remedies, was the first to introduce civil rights remedies into the regular Law School curriculum.
Parker was also an accomplished jazz trombonist, performing last year with the Don Shaw Group at the jazz festival in Naples, Italy. He also played in jazz bands throughout Europe, at Columbia, and elsewhere in New York City.
Hundreds attended a memorial service for Parker at St. Paul's Chapel on Sunday.
Parker is survived by three daughters, Kimberly of Palo Alto, Calif., Shilla of Cambridge, Mass., and Emily of Washington; two sons, Kellis Jr. and Kai, both of New York; his companion, Dr. Cassandra Simmons, of New York; his mother, Novella, of Kinston; three brothers, Donald of
Kinston, and Maceo and Melvin, both of New York; and a sister, Valerie, of Kinston.
The family has requested that donations be made to the Kellis E. Parker Memorial Scholarship Fund, to be administered through the Law School.