Colleagues deal praise to 'classic' salesman Tribute honors career after 48 years, 5,000 cars

November 14, 1995|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

What does Apple Ford car salesman Lester D. Parker Sr. have in common with the shiny 1957 red-and-white Ford Thunderbird he's standing next to?

Both are classics.

Before officially retiring last week, Mr. Parker sold cars for 48 years and was one of the first black car salesmen in the history of the Apple Ford franchise, which now is in Columbia but has roots in several dealerships in Baltimore.

Though initially prevented from selling cars because of his race, he went on to become one of the dealership's most successful salesmen, selling an estimated 5,000 cars.

"It's my life," said Mr. Parker. "Wouldn't do anything else."

Thursday night, more than 100 Apple Ford employees, customers, Mr. Parker's family and friends and County Executive Charles I. Ecker gathered to honor the 80-year-old at a surprise tribute. And Ross H. Roberts, vice president and general manager of the Ford Division of the Detroit-based Ford Motor Co., stopped by to praise him.

"It's such a pleasure to able to shake hands with money," said Roger Ercolano, another Apple salesman who has worked with Mr. Parker since 1948. "I'm still selling, and he's decided to retire."

"He was one of the best," Mr. Ercolano said. "He lived off his repeat business."

George L. Doetsch, president of Columbia's first auto dealership, Apple Ford, said, "He's excellent at what he does. He's a master salesman by definition."

Added one of Mr. Parker's sons, Reginald Parker, also a car salesman: "He's got a following that is out of this world. It's unreal."

At Thursday's affair, one customer recounted recently buying the 24th car Mr. Parker had sold to her family.

Finding his niche

After serving as a teacher and principal in his native North Carolina, Mr. Parker came to Baltimore to sell insurance and then became a trucking company co-owner. In 1947, he found his niche: selling cars at Berhend Brothers in Baltimore. The company changed names several times before becoming Apple Ford.

He remained undaunted when he learned he couldn't sell from the showroom floor because he is black. Once the managers saw his work, they changed that practice.

"A lot of white people came to me and figured I wouldn't take advantage of them," Mr. Parker said. As long as he gave them a good deal, he said, "They said 'I don't care what your color is.' "

Mr. Parker, owner of a Ford Crown Victoria and LTD, said he still likes the old, roomier cars -- particularly if they're Fords. He posed yesterday at Apple for a photographer by a 1957 Thunderbird, a car he fondly recounted selling.

Asked whether he is just as much a classic, Mr. Parker laughed and said, "That's what they say by the clothes I wear."

Family tradition

Selling cars helped Mr. Parker raise eight children until an illness in January forced him to slow down.

A second son, Lester Parker Jr. of Chicago, is a car salesman, and he and his brother Reginald say they learned their trade with help from their father.

"Honesty, customer satisfaction," said Reginald Parker, who sells cars for Fox Chevrolet Inc. in Woodlawn. "He taught me you don't have to be a crook to sell a vehicle as long as you treat people right."

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