The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

‘A true leader’: Community members celebrate life of staff member Olivia Parrish

Parrish worked as a staff member on the Vanderbilt University Maintenance and Operations team for almost 45 years and passed away during her shift on Oct. 23.
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Savannah Walske
The memorial for Olivia Parrish, as photographed on Nov. 17, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Savannah Walske)

Staff, students, family and friends of Olivia Parrish gathered at the Stevenson Courtyard on Nov. 17 for a celebration of Olivia Parrish’s life. Parrish worked as a staff member for Vanderbilt University Maintenance and Operations for almost 45 years.

Parrish passed away during a shift in the Stevenson Center on the night of Oct. 23. Organizers and family members expressed frustration that the university did not provide email communications to the Vanderbilt community about Parrish’s death, nor plan a memorial for her life. A university representative told The Hustler that the university does not typically hold memorials for community members who have passed away, and faculty memorials are conducted up to the discretion of individual colleges. Vanderbilt released a news story about Parrish’s passing nine days after her death and told The Hustler that it reached out to Parrish’s family about her death.

She embodied to me what a true leader is. True leaders serve others, true leaders invest in other people by serving them without caring about what they get in return.

— Dawn Witherspoon

“We were appalled by the lack of response from the Vanderbilt administration. A woman who had, first of all, died on Vanderbilt’s campus, and who also had spent 45 years working for the institution had no formal acknowledgment,” junior Mayowa Kassim, African Student Union vice president of external affairs, said. “We thought we should come together as a community to acknowledge her, the work she [has] done and her long and beautiful life.”

Dores Worker Solidarity Network and ASU organized the memorial. The event was co-sponsored by the Center for Spiritual Life, the Curb Center and the Black Student Association.

People gathered at the memorial for Olivia Parrish, as photographed on Nov. 17, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Shalini Thinakaran)

“There is no way to have been around her and to have not known her love, or known that you were around greatness,” Dawn Witherspoon, Parrish’s cousin, said during her remarks. “She embodied to me what a true leader is. True leaders serve others, true leaders invest in other people by serving them without caring about what they get in return.”

A life-long Nashville resident, Parrish was educated in the Nashville-Davidson County school system and attended Tennessee State University. She was married to the late Clayton Parrish and was a member of the Mt. Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. Family members described her as an avid crafter, sewer and baker, lauding her famed peanut butter cookies.

“Her life taught me that you might not get what you want, but you still give. No matter if people treat you bad, you still love them,” Alanda Thompson, Parrish’s daughter, said during her remarks.

Jesse Schmidt, a Vanderbilt custodian who was trained by Parrish and worked in the same building as her, described her as “very patient” and “very nice.” Schmidt explained that he was one of the people who found Parrish and that he cleaned up the scene afterward.

Because of Olivia, I have gone through my entire life always noticing the people who other people don’t notice, because, for me, she was life-changing.”

— Dawn Witherspoon

“When I first started my routine, I had no idea what I was doing. She was more than willing to pause whatever she was doing to help show me the ropes,” Schmidt said.

Olivia Parrish with her family members, as photographed on May 10, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Alanda Thompson)

Witherspoon reiterated how proud she was of Parrish and her career.

“Enabling someone else to learn, enabling someone else to be their best self by making sure they have an environment that allows them to learn, to grow, to be who they are called to be — and doing that whether you are ever clapped for and celebrated or not — that’s a true leader,” Witherspoon said. “Because of Olivia, I have gone through my entire life always noticing the people who other people don’t notice, because, for me, she was life-changing.”

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About the Contributors
Katherine Oung, Data Director
Katherine Oung ('25) is majoring in political science and computer science and minoring in data science in the College of Arts and Science. They are from West Palm Beach, Fla., and were previously Deputy News Editor and Managing Editor. Katherine enjoys working on freelance journalism projects and making incredibly specific Spotify playlists. They can be reached at [email protected].
Savannah Walske, Staff Photographer
Savannah Walske (‘26) is from San Francisco and is double majoring in psychology and Spanish in the College of Arts and Science. When not shooting for The Hustler, you can find her playing guitar, photographing pretty Californian landscapes and obsessing over her dog. You can contact her at [email protected].
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Comments (2)

The Vanderbilt Hustler welcomes and encourages readers to engage with content and express opinions through the comment sections on our website and social media platforms. The Hustler reserves the right to remove comments that contain vulgarity, hate speech, personal attacks or that appear to be spam, commercial promotion or impersonation. The comment sections are moderated by our Editor-in-Chief, Rachael Perrotta, and our Social Media Director, Chloe Postlewaite. You can reach them at [email protected] and [email protected].
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Bryce Emanuel
3 months ago

I just want people to know that a student found her and jesse who’s interviewed here, both tried to resuscitate her, and had to clean it up afterwards. it’s really sad that Vanderbilt and it’s admin want to present as if they care by putting out an article at the bottom of MyVU (which no student in their life has ever read), about Olivia Parrish. It’s baffling because we have students having to ask for mutual aid from the community because vanderbilts only paying her family half of what she’s owed from insurance because she didn’t retire, (or couldn’t due to the obstacles that workers @ vandy experience). It’s really hard for me to accept that more can’t be done in the prioritization of the people in our community. i know that workers are taught to be out of sight and out of mind but, I can’t tell you how many times a kind word from a worker, be it custodial staff, dining, or construction has improved my day. these are people that i’ve had the privilege to build personal relationships with. these are ppl in my life, these are my moms my uncle my aunts. there are more workers that look like
me than in the student population. and where vanderbilt never ceases to surprise me, is in their apathy over the lives and experiences on the workers on this campus. all we’re asking for is the bare minimum. acknowledge the life and the impact of integral members of our community. it’d be great to get some better rights for the workers, but Vanderbilt at the very least must change its grief correspondence policy to include staff. Without it you’re perpetuating the dehumanization and disregard of our workers, who work their entire lives to improve our wellbeing. we’re literally benefiting off of the lives of these ppl. least we could do is acknowledge their impact

R
Admin
3 months ago
Reply to  Bryce Emanuel

Hi Bryce, Thanks for your comment and care for Ms. Parrish and the Vanderbilt community.

I wanted to clarify that we reached out to the university about Ms. Parrish’s life insurance prior to publication. The university explained that the insurance benefits her family is receiving are based on Vanderbilt’s universal basic insurance plan, which operates by decreasing term. Her retirement status was not part of this calculation.