Thursday, December 6, 2001

Next AOL chief
is UH alum

Richard Parsons will replace
the retiring CEO, Gerald Levin

Star-Bulletin staff and wire

NEW YORK >> The next chief executive of AOL Time Warner comes from a working class background and a University of Hawaii education.

Richard Parsons was born April 4, 1948, in Brooklyn, later moving to Queens. His father was a technician with Sperry Rand on Long Island. His academic career at the University of Hawaii was, by his own genial admission, undistinguished, apart from his time playing varsity basketball.

Parsons will become one of the nation's most prominent African-American executives in May when he replaces the retiring Gerald Levin as chief executive of AOL Time Warner, the $159 billion company whose businesses span movies, television, publishing, professional sports, and the Internet.

Along with Chairman Stephen Case, former Hawaii residents will hold the top two executive positions of the largest media company in the world.

Parsons talks fondly of his time at the University of Hawaii from September 1964 to June 1969 where, he has said in a number of speeches, he had such a good time that he left without finishing his bachelor's degree in history.

"I attended the University of Hawaii. There, I dedicated myself to exercising my unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of coeds," Parsons joked in a speech last year. "That pursuit took me to the beaches, and the frat parties and all sorts of late-night rendezvousing."

While at UH he met and married a fellow student named Laura Bush. They have two daughters and one son. He was six credits short of his degree when he left in June 1968.

As a UH newsletter said when the alumni association named Parsons a distinguished alumnus in 1997, he did go on with his education, with the encouragement of Laura, who did receive her UH degree and now has a doctorate.

Parsons went to Union University's Albany Law School and graduated first in his class. He earned the top score of anyone taking the bar exam in New York state in 1971.

Parsons worked as a lawyer for then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York and followed him to the White House when he became vice president in 1974. Parsons later said that his links with the Rockefeller family would provide a broad network of connections that helped his career in a many ways. (Parsons has one other connection to that family: His grandfather was a grounds keeper on the Rockefellers' estate in Pocantico Hills.)

After President Ford left the White House, Parsons moved back to New York and joined Patterson, Belknap, the law firm headed by former Assistant Attorney General Harold R. Tyler. In 1988, he passed up the opportunity to be managing partner of that firm.

Instead, he became president of Dime Savings Bank, working for Harry W. Albright Jr., another former Rockefeller aide. Parsons, who ultimately became Dime's chief executive, saw the bank through a few tough years as it was hobbled by bad loans. He left for Time Warner shortly after it merged with the Anchor Savings Bank.

Parsons' connection to Time Warner first came through Laurence Rockefeller, who introduced him to Steve Ross, then the company's chief executive. In 1991, just after Time Inc. merged with Warner Communications, Parsons was asked to join the board.

There he got to know Levin, who asked him in 1995 to take Levin's old job as president when Levin became chief executive.

At Time Warner, Parsons ran the central corporate bureaucracy in a company that gave its publishing, movie, music and cable units great autonomy.

"Dick was able to bring people together as a way to harmonize the company," said Richard J. Bressler, chief financial officer of Viacom, who had the same job at Time Warner before its merger with America Online. Bressler said, for example, that Parsons was able to persuade all the company's units to accept a long range planning process that they initially rejected as a waste of time.

But confrontational is generally not the Parsons style.

"One of my sisters said to me once, 'You're not threatening to people,'" Parsons said. "I'm much happier when everybody's happy. If I'm the only one who's happy, then somewhere we went wrong."

Honolulu writer Ian Lind, who was at the University of Hawaii at the same time as Parsons, remembers him as "a real casual, nice guy, a sweet guy."

Parsons was in Hawaii in January 1998 as head of Time Warner and arranged for the company's Hawaii subsidiary, Oceanic Cable, to wire up Hawaii schools for cable television free.

Under that direction, Oceanic wired up 175 schools and now provides almost all of them with free cable. It also rigged the Hawaii libraries for cable.

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