Frances Margaret Parsons was a fixture at the Town Square Towers in Southwest Washington, where she lived for the past two decades and walked her feisty brown miniature pinscher, her constant companion.
The 90-year-old retired professor from Gallaudet University, identified as deaf when she was 5, was with her dog Wednesday afternoon when D.C. police say she was struck and killed by a black 2013 Porsche Cayenne whose driver was exiting the condominium complex’s underground parking garage.
Parsons, known as “Peggie” by her many students, colleagues and friends around the world, was a renowned figure in the deaf community. The prolific author and lecturer spent a lifetime fighting to educate the deaf community and set up schools around the world. Her travels took her to every continent, including Antarctica, which she visited at age 83.
“She was a legend in the deaf community,” said one of her former students, Kathleen Brockway, 43, who lives in Maryland and last saw Parsons just before Thanksgiving, rummaging around the archives at Gallaudet, where she taught and worked for 20 years before retiring in 1993.
D.C. police are investigating the incident and have not filed any charges. It occurred shortly after 3 p.m. on a ramp leading into the underground garage of the 285-unit building on Seventh Street SW.
Police said the driver stopped, but they have not released any other details.
Parsons’s sudden death has thrust residents of the block-long building into mourning, wondering what she was doing on the ramp and whether the driver, who residents and the manager said recently moved in, might have been confused by the layout.
Several residents of Parsons’s apartment building were too upset to talk. Relatives of Parsons could not be reached, though the condo manager, Barbara Barton, said Parsons’s twin sister was flying to the District from California on Thursday.
Barton said residents were setting up for the building Christmas party when someone rushed in and said Parsons had been struck by a vehicle a few minutes after 3 p.m. She was pronounced dead at a hospital that evening.
“She was very fragile,” Barton said, explaining that Parsons often walked to shore up a deteriorating hip.
For many years, she never went out without her dog, which had to be calmed after the accident. Barton described the pet as a guide dog, though others said it was more of a companion. But Barton said it fiercely guarded Parsons.
“They were very close,” she said. “If you got too close to her, that dog would be yapping.”
Parsons set up schools around the world and advocated what is known as “total communication,” teaching deaf students using both sign language and voice. She shunned the alternative, “oralism,” which uses mouth shapes and lip reading but not sign language.
Tracey Salaway, a professor of language art culture at Gallaudet since 1997, said Parsons thought the “total communication” philosophy would help “build a bridge between the signing community and the hearing community.”
She said she met Parsons on campus a few years ago and they quickly became friends. “She was a loving, beautiful woman,” Salaway said. “She had a beautiful spirit.”
Barton said Parsons could speak a few words, but mostly used sign language. She made many public appearances over the course of her life, and her books are listed on the Internet and used by deaf groups around the world.
After a speech to the Northern Virginia Association for the Deaf, the group posted pictures of Parsons posing with her dog and her published works. She presented slide shows on sign language spreading from Paris to the rest of the world.
According to her biography published by Gallaudet, she attended that school, as well as the University of Maryland and Georgetown, Howard and George Washington universities. Parsons studied and taught art history, archaeology and sculpture, and lectured on how to better communicate with deaf children. One of her best-known books, published in 1989 and titled “I Didn’t Hear the Dragon Roar,” recounts her travels through China. She also was involved with the Peace Corps.
Gallaudet, the country’s leading university for the deaf, has her collection of letters, lectures, books, manuscripts and notes filling 27 boxes and amounting to 23,000 pages, spanning the years from the Great Depression though 2006.
She taught art history until 1988 and served as Gallaudet’s coordinator of International History Collections for five years before retiring.