Faces of Berkeley: Paul Parish, campus bartender and Rhodes Scholar

Faculty club staff member became close friends with Bill Clinton at Oxford

Mary Zheng/Staff
Paul Parish was a Rhodes Scholar in the 1960's but now he tends bar in the UC Berkeley Faculty Club.

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When Paul Parish was a Rhodes Scholar in the late 1960s, he became close friends with former United States President Bill Clinton.

Now, he enjoys a versatile lifestyle as a bartender at the UC Berkeley faculty club, dance instructor and dance critic in Berkeley.

Parish’s life journey has led him from a small town in Mississippi, to Oxford University in England, and to Berkeley where he started working at the faculty club.

Parish loves his job at the faculty club and enjoys the community that he has created there. He said he does not regret pursuing his passions rather than a professional career.

“The main thing is don’t be a careerist — professionalism is overrated,” Parish said of his outlook on life. “Stay true to yourself.”

Parish was one of the 32 Americans who was selected for the Rhodes Scholarship in 1968. He met Clinton at a New Orleans convention where both received the scholarship, and the two have remained friends ever since through letters and occasional visits that Clinton pays to his old friend.

“When he was president, I wrote him long letters,” Parish said. “I realized he needed friends who didn’t need anything from him.”

Though it may surprise some to learn that a faculty club bartender studied at Oxford and can read Beowulf in Old English, it does not surprise Parish’s friends.

“He relies on his job for money and health insurance,” said campus public policy professor Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under Clinton who also became friends with Parish at Oxford. “There is nothing unusual about that — some of the most creative people I know have jobs that pay the rent and give them some financial health.”

Despite his pursuits in academia, Parish said he never had a distinguishable goal in life, and was motivated by a desire to “make mama proud” and an unbreakable will to remain faithful to his passions — dance and writing.

“It sounds a little selfish, but I think it’s important if you have a talent to find out what it is, and it’s a mistake to decide too early,” Parish said.

Parish was selected for the scholarship by many of his professors at the University of Mississippi who were impressed by his versatility and intelligence.

“I don’t think I’ve never known a genius except for Paul,” said Candy Canzoneri, an English professor at Otterbein College in Ohio who attended the University of Mississippi with Parish. “He is a polymath, he was good as so many things — anything that he wanted to do he would be superb at.”

Parish initially intended to be a pre-med student until he read a “life-changing” poem by T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” He then switched his focus to English.

“That’s when I decided not to do something practical,” Parish said, and he graduated with a major in English and minors in history and German before continuing his studies in English at Oxford.

In 1971, Parish returned to Mississippi to find a world completely altered from the one he left behind.

“When I came back from Oxford I found that my family was disintegrating, the world was really weird, and my father and mother were on opposite sides of the civil rights movement,” he said.

Not only were his parents separated, but when Parish returned from Oxford he revealed to his family that he was gay, causing him to be “pretty much disowned.” Parish moved to Berkeley in an attempt to escape intolerance, and decided to attend UC Berkeley to get a doctorate in English. However, he was disillusioned by the low job prospects and scholarly writing style, and decided not to finish the program.

“Nobody doubted his intelligence, what people doubted was if he had a scholarly orientation,” said Anne Middleton, one of Parish’s English professors at UC Berkeley. “He has remained a good friend and I think that particularly as a reminder that really high intelligence and scholarly inquiry do not always go together.”

After leaving UC Berkeley, Parish began working at the faculty club and has been working there for about 40 years, and continues to pursue his passions in dance and writing, he said. While studying at UC Berkeley he wrote dance reviews for The Daily Californian, and now he writes dance reviews frequently for The Bay Area Reporter, and occasionally for San Francisco magazine, while also teaching ballet classes.

Parish’s versatility and diversity reiterate his desire to remain open to all opportunities.

“The Romanovs became doormen at hotels in Monaco,” Parish said. “It can happen to anybody, and a Rhodes Scholar should be humble enough to think that (being a bartender) is not the worst fate that he could have.”

Sybil Lewis covers Berkeley communities.