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Henry Parnass enriches the lives of others

September 30, 2009
By CAPERTON?TISSOT, Special to the Enterprise

Henry Parnass was the CEO of Newton Falls Paper Company from 1972 until 1990. Though he became a successful businessman, his accomplishments go far beyond that. Active in Saranac Lake, he has worked for many years to enrich the community. He is, in fact, a true humanitarian.

Art in Public Spaces is one of his projects. Inititated by Henry and his sons, it was set up as a memorial to his late wife, Barbara, and makes fine art available for the enjoyment of the public. Tim Fortune, the most recent person to be so honored, joins other selected artists whose pictures have been purchased by the Parnass family: photographers Mark Kurtz and Barry Lobdell; painters Dickie and Ray Jenkins, Ursula Trudeau and Ken Wiley and sculptor Carol Vossler.

This year concludes the Art in Public Places project but the collection will remain on loan for public viewing: two paintings are at Will Rogers, four at the Adirondack Medical Center, and the sculpture is on permanent display on the grounds of St. Joseph's Rehabilitation Center.

Article Photos

Henry Parnass outside the Adirondack Artists’ Guild on Main Street in Saranac Lake
(Photo — Caperton Tissot)

Henry's ability to "walk in another man's shoes" goes back many years. He, like many others, looks back to a defining moment in his education. It occurred when he was a student at Harvard University and a member of Eisenhower's cabinet gave a speech there. "You are very privileged to be here," the speaker told the students, "You owe it to us to do public service, either as a paid employee or as a volunteer. The community may need the particular expertise which you have developed, and you owe it to them." Henry has never forgotten that message.

The manner in which he ran the paper company is a good indication of the depth of understanding he holds for fellow citizens. Groups such as the teamsters and AFL-CIO began to organize the company's employees just prior to his arrival. He had no problem with this and, in 1973 when the unions were finally voted in, thought it a good arrangement.

The company was small by paper company standards, but by Adirondack standards it was a large and welcome employer. Having previously been employed as an officer in the much larger Hammermill Paper Company in Erie, Pa., Henry was delighted to be part of a smaller business where he personally knew each of his employees and had hands-on knowledge of the business.

"I could make my own decisions," he explained.

He was more closely connected to the overall operation, both in the office and "out on the floor."

The paper company started as a sawmill in 1894, and was located in Newton Falls, St. Lawrence County. It was bought by McGraw-Hill in the 1920s. When Henry took over management, it employed some 500 people, 35 percent of whom had worked there more than 25 years. Under his guidance, the company saw a dramatic expansion, growing from a $20 million to more than a $100 million operation. Part of that growth was due to his marketing skills (that being his specialty), part to his congenial style of working with employees and part to his choice of how to best benefit from computers.

Unlike most other companies, Henry installed computers on the plant's manufacturing machinery long before bringing them into the office. This meant that, on receiving an order, it was immediately responded to by live people rather than lost in a computerized administrative maze. Also, because the machines could be reprogrammed rapidly, he was able to get special orders out faster. Believing his obligations extended beyond his job, Parnass took time out of a busy schedule to pass along his knowledge by teaching business courses at Clarkson University.

The combination of the paper mill in Newton Falls and Benson Mines in Star Lake together contributed to the establishment of a thriving community. Newton Falls was a company town. The paper company owned most of the houses, though in a truly humanitarian gesture, it eventually sold those houses to the occupants for a dollar apiece. The Newton Falls Hotel, center for social events for more than 100 years, was also owned by the mill. It was a prosperous village swirling with activities and clubs.

The New York Central railroad ran (or lumbered) at just 5 mph from Newton Falls to Philadelphia, N.Y. (near Watertown) carrying rock out from Benson Mines and on the return trip, bringing 500-pound wire-wrapped bales of pulp in from Canada and the southeastern U.S. to the paper mill. There, the pulp was turned into paper for both book publishers and food labels such as Campbell's soups and Morton Salt. Eventually, Henry managed to see that the railroad line was repaired, allowing the train to go at 25 mph. By shortening the length of the trip, an extra train crew was eliminated, making the run a bit cheaper. Paper leaving the plant was shipped by truck.

What kind of a background prepares someone for such a job? Henry was born in New York City, attended Amherst College for one year in 1942, interrupted his education to do a 3-year stint in the navy, and then returned to graduate from Amherst with a BA degree. While there, he met Barbara at "Mount Holyoke Seminary for beautiful women," as he expressed it. They married in 1950 and in the following years raised three sons: Jeffrey, who is now a lawyer in NYC; John, a lawyer living in Seattle; and Larry, the editor-in-chief of the Hampshire Daily newspaper in Northampton, Mass.

Shortly after graduating, Henry went on to earn an MBA at Harvard Business School. In 1972, charmed by the village of Saranac Lake, Henry and his family moved here. Retiring in 1990 allowed Henry to devote more time to some favorite projects such as helping start the Adirondack Scenic Railroad (of which he was president for 3 years), and serving as a board member at Paul Smith's College, the Saranac Lake Free Library, Adirondack North Country Associates and the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

Barbara studied photography at North Country Community College and served as a board member at the Adirondack Medical Center, North Star Industries, Saranac Lake Free Library, the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and SUNY, Plattsburgh."She had a substantial impact on the community," Henry said.

Tragically, Barbara died of lung cancer in March, 2002. Henry and his sons, wishing to honor her life's achievements, established a scholarship in her memory at SUNY Plattsburgh. Each year it is given to an art student selected by the faculty. So far over $14,000 has been awarded to this worthy cause.

Henry has been keeping an eye on local food pantries and is impressed by how, through donations and volunteer work, "people are helping people. It is pretty typical of Saranac Lake," he observes. Henry Parnass stands tall in our community for his commitment to the welfare of the residents and their institutions.

Based on an interview with Henry Parnass.

---Caperton Tissot can be reached at



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