Why is this upbeat, 70-year-old known as the Mayor of Clematis Street?

Updated Feb 21, 2018
Willie Parson at his 70th birthday party at O’Shea’s. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

“How you?” comes the voice.

“Hey there, how you?” you hear again, until, at an impossibly early hour, you peer under the awning outside O’Shea’s Irish Pub in downtown West Palm Beach and see a tiny man with a smile that consumes his face, sitting at a high top table.

The bar is closed at that hour, but William “Willie” Parson, the “Mayor of the 500 block of Clematis Street” is open for business, greeting his constituents as they file past.

He’s in place to the right of the front door by 6:30 every morning, sometimes earlier, greeting early rising dog walkers, people scurrying to Subculture Coffee  to clear the morning fog and scores of police department personnel and city hall workers getting a jump on the day.

Ladies get a greeting with special emphasis. “How you,” he calls out.

Parson, who lives in an apartment above the pub, considers O’Shea’s patio his front porch. In the South, it’s polite to greet everyone who passes by your front porch.

“I’m from Georgia and Georgia people are nice people,” he says, his drawl as thick as cane syrup. “When I was coming up, my grandmamma told me to be nice to everybody.”

When Irish native Maurice Costigan and his English wife, Rachel, bought O’Sheas in 1994, Parson was already as much a part of the bar as the beer taps.

“When they bought this place, I came with it,” Parson said, with a laugh.

He and Maurice still have a hard time deciphering each other’s dueling accents.

“We use hand gestures,” said Maurice.

(l to r) Leah Costigan, Willie Parson, Maurice Costigan, Rachel Costigan and Niall Costigan celebrate Parson’s 70th birthday at O’Shea’s in West Palm Beach on February 18. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

For about 15 years, Parson washed dishes, swept the floors and kept the pub clean until health issues demanded he retire.

In 2016, doctors saved his life twice, he says, during treatment for cancer, liver and kidney disease. He wasn’t expected to live, said Rachel Costigan.

He was away from his post for months while recuperating, but lately, he’s been presiding again over the 500 block, a national historic district.

Over the years, the Costigans have become family to the man who has none.

Rachel nags him about eating well, which means his favorite foods such as fried chicken and biscuits and gravy are off the menu in favor of more healthy fare.

“I hate salads,” Parson grouses. “To me, they’re rabbit food.”

Parson has been a fixture on the street since well before it became the city’s hippest block and O’Sheas became downtown’s “Cheers.”

“It wouldn’t be O’Shea’s without Willie,” says the Costigan’s son, Niall, 21, who was a locomotive-obsessed toddler when Parson wheeled him down the block to watch the freight trains rumble past while his parents ran the pub.

Niall’s sister, Leah, 19, brings out a framed photo of herself as a baby on Parson’s lap.

“He used to take me to Blessings market across the street for lollipops,” she said.

On Feb. 18, the Costigans threw Parson a 70th birthday party to thank him for being the street’s ambassador of friendliness.

A birthday cake for Willie Parson. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

“He’s been so sick the last couple of years that I’m delighted we got here, to his 70th birthday,” said Rachel.

On the back patio, Mr. Mayor, a hair over 5-feet tall and skinny to the point of frailty, drank cranberry juice while receiving his guests with fist bumps, hand shakes and plenty of hugs.

“He’s been around all these years,” said Molly Felmet of West Palm Beach. “You come in for a pint and you get a hug.”

Irish ex-pats Barry and Janet Kinsella have known Parson since the first few months the pub opened 24 years ago.

“You can’t get him down, he’s a positive person,” said Janet.

Parson doesn’t drink or smoke. He’s never married and has no children.

He grew up with his grandmother in Atlanta, where he left school in the 10th grade to go to work. In an Atlanta factory that made blue jean denim, he kept the spools of thread filled for the looms.

“We made the clothes for that movie, “Saturday Night Fever,” he said.

When the plant closed in 1981, with no family left, he started walking.

For weeks, maybe months, he doesn’t remember how long, he trudged south.

“I didn’t hitchhike, I just walked,” he said.

He slept by the road during the day and walked at night, eating oranges and grapefruit off the trees once he got to Florida. He stopped walking when he arrived somewhere in northern Palm Beach County, where he caught a ride to West Palm Beach, whose downtown was a desuetude of boarded-up shops and deserted streets.

“It wasn’t like it is now at all,” he said, “with all these businesses and the restaurants. On this block, people were sleeping in doorways. That doesn’t happen here anymore.”

He got a job managing downtown parking lots, running off people who tried to park for free. That’s how he met Raphael Clemente, years before Clemente became director of the Downtown Development Authority.

“I was trying to park illegally in the (Pioneer Linens) lot where he worked, but he made it clear I did not have that option,” said Clemente. “I asked whose lot it was and he said, ‘It’s my lot.’”

He treats panhandlers with the same firm discouragement.

“I just tell them, ‘You can’t do that here,” he said.

“He’s our watchdog,” said Niall. “You can’t mess with Willie or you’ll have the whole city after you.”

Willie Parson is greeted by Aiveen Flade, 4, and her mother, Marie Flade during a 70th birthday party for Parson at O’Shea’s in West Palm Beach. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post) Photo: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Mr. Mayor’s people are the downtown workers, the local residents, the hipsters and the homeless who gravitate to the 500.

“He’s a legend on the block,” said Sean Donahue, who runs the West Palm Beach recreational soccer league. “He’s Willie from the block.”

Eventually, everyone who spends time downtown receives a dose of sunshine from Parson.

Dan Graves remembered a day when the city’s elected mayor met the appointed mayor of the 500 block.

“One day, I’m siting out there and Mayor (Jeri) Muoio came by and paid her respects,”said Graves. “Even the mayor of West Palm Beach referred to him as the Mayor of Clematis.”