Frances Knight Parrish, 94, retired chief of the U.S. Passport Office and one of Washington's most fiery and resilient bureaucrats, died at Suburban Hospital on Sept. 11 after a series of strokes.
Mrs. Parrish, who was known by her maiden name Miss Knight, served as director of the U.S. Passport Office for 22 years before retiring under controversial circumstances in 1977. She had a reputation as an outspoken, tough and competent administrator. She made no secret of her combative conservative political philosophy and managed over the years to get what she wanted despite the opposition of higher officials who were often to her political left.
Some compared Miss Knight to her friend, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, as a stern taskmaster reigning over a personal fiefdom. But few could complain about the efficiency with which the Passport Office operated during her tenure. At the time of her retirement, the Passport Office was considered by many as one of the government's premier service bureaucracies.
She had been a typist at the National Industrial Recovery Administration and public relations director of the American Retail Federation when in 1955 her name surfaced as a replacement for Ruth Shipley, then director of the Passport Office.
On meeting Miss Knight, then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who was considering her appointment, reportedly said, "I hear you are a controversial person." She reportedly answered, "So are you, Mr. Secretary. So is anybody who sticks his neck out in government."
She got the job and quickly set out to overhauling the office by consolidating units, sections and branches, better coordinating its field offices and hiring additional staff. She said at the time that the reorganization was needed to process an increasing volume of passport applications in the age of modern travel. The numbers validate her prediction on overseas travel: about 500,000 Americans received passports in 1955, 1.9 million in 1968 and three million in 1977.
"I was determined to prove that a government agency could be made efficient; that business management and standards could be instituted and maintained; that government employees could provide the public with interested, friendly and personalized public service," she told The Washington Post in 1960.
Her blunt-speaking style (sometimes referring to her State Department superiors as "gutless" and "soft on communism") and her conservative politics often landed her in hot water with senior officials and newspaper columnists.
Critics charged that she participated in a policy to arbitrarily deny passports to Americans with political viewpoints not to her liking. She also readily offered the resources of the Passport Office to help government investigators in the surveillance of Americans traveling abroad.
In the mid-1960s, she came under attack when it was learned that her staff had passed an FBI request on to the U.S. Embassies in Paris and Moscow to keep an eye on an antiwar Harvard University professor during a European sabbatical.
Miss Knight, a strong-willed woman with short curly blond hair and pale blue eyes, was also outspoken on women's rights issues and complained about the lack of women in top management positions at the State Department.
More than a few times, her opponents on Capitol Hill called for her resignation. None were successful. For a time, it seemed even the Civil Service Commission's mandatory retirement age of 70 for civil servants would also lose against the sharp-tongued Republican with political connections.
As her retirement age approached, she received two extensions, officials explained, to work on a new type of passport, a plastic version that could be read by machines. She retired in 1977 at the age of 72.
Her custom-designed home in Washington's Embassy Row area was the center of entertainment for heads of state and captains of industry. She and her husband, multimillionaire magazine publisher Wayne Parrish, amassed a spectacular art collection on their own travels around the world. Tired of explaining the artwork to guests, Mr. Parrish wrote a 28-page catalog of the house and its contents.
Miss Knight, who lived at the Carriage Hill nursing home since 1996, was born in Newport, R.I., and grew up in New York City. She attended Hunter College and New York University, then came to Washington when her husband was offered the editorship of a local aviation magazine. Mr. Parrish started his own publication and enlisted the help of his wife to handle the bookkeeping and circulation.
Mr. Parrish died in 1984. There are no immediate survivors.
CAPTION: Frances Knight Parrish, who used her maiden name in official life, poses on her 70th birthday, the mandatory retirement age. She stayed two more years.