Local Obituaries

Parker Thomson, acclaimed attorney and the man behind the Arsht Center, dies at 85

Parker Thomson, seen here in September 2006, helped make the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts a reality. At its 2006 opening, he stood in front of the Vann and Parker Thomson Plaza, a part of the PAC named for Thomson and his wife, Vann.
Parker Thomson, seen here in September 2006, helped make the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts a reality. At its 2006 opening, he stood in front of the Vann and Parker Thomson Plaza, a part of the PAC named for Thomson and his wife, Vann. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Parker Thomson, the Harvard-trained attorney renowned for fighting, and winning, First Amendment cases, and as the founding chair of the Performing Arts Center Trust that led to the creation of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, died Friday.

Thomson, a former partner at Hogan Lovells, was 85.

Thomson, who lived in Coral Gables, led the Miami-Dade Performing Arts Center Trust’s 32-member volunteer board and secured the public funding that supported the construction and the ongoing operations of the Arsht.

The Arsht, under Thomson’s watch, opened in 2006 and has grown into one of the country’s leading community-driven performing arts centers. In addition to touring Broadway shows, concerts, and Miami City Ballet and Florida Grand Opera performances, the Arsht presents original programming. It also features outreach programs like Jazz Roots and AileyCamp, which offer free education programs for Miami-Dade public schoolchildren.

“Without Parker Thomson and Woody Weiser, there would not have been an Arsht Center. Generations of Miamians will forever benefit from Parker’s vision and dedication,” said Adrienne Arsht, founding chairman of the Adrienne Arsht Center Foundation. Sherwood “Woody” Weiser was a prominent hotel developer and civic leader who spearheaded fund-raising for the center.

At the 2006 Emilio Estefan-produced opening gala, which featured host Quincy Jones and performances by Gloria Estefan, Bernadette Peters and Andy Garcia, Thomson took it all in and was momentarily stumped when asked by a Miami Herald reporter how long he had worked to get to that moment.

“I formed the trust 17 or 18 years ago,” he said.

His wife, Vann, quipped, “It feels like a 100 years.”

Emilio Estefan, whose Broadway bio musical with Gloria “On Your Feet!” recently opened its road tour at the Arsht, said of Thomson: “He is leaving a great legacy. It has been fantastic to see the growth of the arts, and in order to become a major city all of these things bring an incredible contribution. We are very fortunate he spent the time to make that happen.”

Three years earlier, in 2003, when funding was still coming together for the $450 million performing arts venue, renamed in 2008 after philanthropist Adrienne Arsht’s $30 million gift, Thomson was its biggest cheerleader. He’d been through the cost overruns and construction delays but never wavered in his vision.

“Everybody said we couldn’t get the center built. We’ve met every challenge so far,” Thomson told the Herald.

His vision of a performing arts center that serves as a uniting force for our community has vastly improved the quality of life in Miami-Dade County. Parker often said to me, ‘I am always on call.’ And, true to form, he always was. For that, I am forever grateful.

John Richard, president/CEO, Arsht Center.

“The whole issue of the Performing Arts Center was a real struggle,” remembered Merrett Stierheim, former county manager. “Certain segments of the community were not all that excited about it. He was one of the prime movers in raising the money. He was very soft spoken, very intelligent, an outstanding lawyer. He cared. He had a passion for the arts and for the community.”

Recently, Thomson, a board member of the Collins Center for Public Policy, a think tank that focuses on social and economic public policy issues facing Florida, recruited Stierheim to serve as chairman of the center. “I worked on and off with him for decades. He was an active community leader,” Stierheim said. “Very knowledgeable about what was happening in the community.”

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Attorney Parker Thomson was a pioneering first amendment attorney with Paul & Thomson from 1968 to 1983. Miami Herald File

Thomson, a Miami-Dade civic leader for decades, was indefatigable and well suited in his pursuit of the arts, his friend Julian Kreeger wrote for Inspicio, Florida International University’s arts publication. “If it was not for Parker Thomson, Miami would not have its nationally heralded Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.”

Thomson came by his love of the arts early as the son of a history professor at Russell Sage College in Troy, New York. Thomson attended numerous concerts at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, a performance space known for its exceptional acoustics.

He would later insist that acoustics play a prominent role in the construction of the Arsht’s opera house. “This is the first attempt south of Washington to create a concert hall that responds to unmiked music,” Thomson told the St. Petersburg Times at the center’s opening in 2006. “The audience is going to have to be trained to what good acoustics are.”

John Richard, president and chief executive officer of the Arsht Center, believed Thomson was a visionary.

“Parker was a man of superlatively high standards and boundless enthusiasm. He was sincere, tenacious, industrious and self-sacrificing. We who had the privilege of knowing him and working with him will not forget the candor of his speech. What he believed, he believed with heart and soul,” Richard said.

Parker was at the forefront of Miami’s cultural revolution which began over 40 years ago. He believed, and led many others to join him, that a performing arts center such as ours should be built, not for decades, but for centuries. And the result, Miami’s Arsht Center, is his legacy.

John Richard, president/CEO, Arsht Center.

The Performing Arts Center Trust, incorporated in 1991 as a not-for-profit organization to oversee the planning, design, construction and operation of the arts complex, had 32 volunteers who were appointed by county commissioners, the Miami-Dade County Public School Board, arts leaders and companies that would use the venue, the cities of Miami and Miami Beach, and Hispanic and African-American cultural groups.

Thomson took on the task of keeping county commissioners up to speed and flying to New Haven, Conn., for face-time sessions (before Face Time was a thing) with the designers, Cesar Pelli and his architects.

“It’s been truly remarkable in this so-called multi-ethnic city where people aren’t supposed to care to find people who have given extraordinary amounts of time to this project,” Thomson told the Herald in 1997.

A decade before, in 1984, when downtown Miami was only dreaming of becoming an oasis for the arts with its own district, Thomson rallied Miami commissioners to kick in funds for a $120,000 study on what a new performing arts center should include and what it would cost. Around that time, he also helped Coral Gables in the restoration of the landmark Biltmore Hotel, his son-in-law Sean Daly said.

“He was a mentor to me and a crusader. When he believed in something there was no stopping him from making it happen. He, along with [the late] Woody Weiser, was the driving force for the center,” said Performing Arts Center Trust board member Jorge Plasencia.

Thomson also joined his daughter, Meg Daly, in Friends of the Underline, a non-profit organization advocating to transform the land below Miami’s Metrorail into a 10-mile neighborhood park, urban trail and arts space. Daly is president and founder, and her father served as director. Civic leader Plasencia, chief executive officer of República, an independent advertising and communications agency, is also on the Underline’s board.

“Parker has been side by side with Meg on the Underline and from the second she said, ‘I want to do this,’ he said he’d help her make it a reality,” Plasencia said. “He said, ‘this can’t take as many years as the Arsht Center took and we’ll do it in record time.’ And construction of the first phase of the Underline is on track as we speak.”

Said Daly: “My dad has been a true partner in the Underline project working many pro bono hours a week to make the Underline the fastest-moving industrial reuse project in the country. My father made me believe I was better than I am and I could do more than I thought. His commitment to community was fierce, his love of family fathomless and he relentlessly demanded excellence. We have lost a giant. Because of him we are better people and live in a better place.”

In 1968, Thomson joined with fellow Harvard graduate Dan Paul, with whom he worked since 1961, to form the firm Paul & Thomson. According to the Herald in a 1996 feature, Thomson was the technician and theoretician. Paul, who died in 2010, was the litigator “who could turn a phrase on a dime.”

Paul & Thomson was famed for its First Amendment work and represented the Herald, the New York Times, AT&T, Bank of America and did pro bono cases for the League of Women Voters, Miccosukee tribe and the Audubon Society.

The partnership had a reputation for fighting difficult battles — and winning, including the landmark Miami Herald Publishing Company v. Tornillo fight, a case decided in 1974 by the United States Supreme Court that overturned a Florida state law that required newspapers to allow equal space to political candidates in the case of a political editorial or endorsement content.

The duo split in 1983. Few were surprised. Thomson simply said, “It was time.”

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Alberto Ibargüen, Parker Thomson and then Gov. Jeb Bush socialize before the opening ceremonies of the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in the Plaza for the Arts (later Arsht Center) in 2006 in downtown Miami. John VanBeekum Miami Herald File

Two years later, in early 1985, Thomson helped form and served as chair of the Dade County Fair Campaign Practices Committee, a group of local political and civic leaders created to encourage fairness in electoral campaigns.

In a column he wrote for the Miami News in 1985, Thomson, who also did pro bono work for the Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office, expressed disgust with Miami’s polarizing campaigns.

“Candidates running through Dade County were suddenly under attack for being Jewish, Christian, black, Latin or Anglo. Bitterness and hatred welled up within Dade County’s multi-ethnic communities as politicians cynically exploited our differences for their own selfish benefit,” he wrote.

Thomson, with then-Dade Republican Party Chairman Jeb Bush and Dade Democratic Party Chairman Richard Pettigrew, formulated a statement of fair campaign practices, a pledge candidates could sign to keep prejudice out of politics.

“The committee has not succeeded in eliminating appeals to prejudice. We have just taken the important first step in that direction,” Thomson wrote.

As a result of the committee’s efforts, then-Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre dropped two consultants from his campaign who authored a racist attack against rival Marvin Dunn.

Thomson recruited Miami lawyer Rafael Peñalver to succeed him as chairman of the committee.

“He was a mentor to me and a civic giant,” Peñalver said.

Thomson’s survivors include his wife, Vann, and children Parker Jr. and Peter Thomson, Meg Daly and Jamie Thomas; nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen