Valerie Toney Parker, who preached tolerance as church leader and WBEZ exec, dies at 57

Ms. Toney Parker had just been offered her dream job as head of diversity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but colon cancer claimed her life.

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Valerie Toney Parker

Valerie Toney Parker.


Social justice, fairness and tolerance fueled Valerie Toney Parker as a preacher, a mother and a human resources executive with some of the mostly widely recognized names in Chicago.

Ms. Toney Parker’s career landed her at the Chicago Food Depository, University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Chicago Public Media (parent company of WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times).

In recent months, she’d applied for the job as head of diversity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was offered the position, which she considered a dream job. But she ultimately wasn’t able to take on the role due to the enormous toll colon cancer was taking on her life.

Ms. Toney Parker died from the disease May 13. She was 57.

Her sons, Kyle and Justin, were the light of her life, and she was able to travel to San Diego in March to attend Kyle’s wedding. The two were very close.

For Kyle’s senior thesis at the University of Chicago Lab Schools in 2013, Ms. Toney Parker encouraged her son to take on a challenging project.

“So I decided to figure out what it felt like to live in poverty in a country that had been through civil war. I told her I wanted to go to Liberia, and she didn’t hesitate. She figured out who she knew in Liberia, and we spent the month of May living there together,” he said.

They stayed in the home of a school principal and spent time at schools and churches interviewing students who’d previously been forced into becoming child soldiers about their experiences. The two made a short documentary film on the trip.

Her late father, Louis Toney, was a bishop and presiding elder at a number of African Methodist Episcopal churches on the South Side, and he ingrained in Ms. Toney Parker a deep sense of service.

Ms. Toney Parker became an AME minister and led two youth service trips to South Africa, where she helped rehab homes and ensure people had access to water.

The Rev. Valerie Toney Parker speaks at a 2007 prayer breakfast held at Elgin Community College.

The Rev. Valerie Toney Parker speaks at a 2007 prayer breakfast at Elgin Community College.

Sun-Times file

“She didn’t care for injustice, whatever it looked like, and she preached even when her words weren’t popular, be it at church or her workplace,” said Kyle, who noted his mother belonged to several different churches before finding landing at Arnett Chapel AME in Morgan Park, where she felt most at home.

“A lot of churches didn’t want to talk about things like social justice issues. They didn’t think that should be a part of it, and she thought the church should be at the forefront, like in the ’60s,” Kyle said.

“She was extremely open and receptive to our friends, all cultures, ages, sizes. She made a home welcome to anyone,” Justin said. “She wanted you to be yourself and to see beautifulness within yourself, no matter if you’re gay, what gender or race you were, didn’t matter.”

Tracy Brown, chief content officer at Chicago Public Media, said Ms. Toney Parker’s ideals anchored her time at the nonprofit media organization.

“In Valerie, you had a person who was asking us to think openly about bringing our authentic selves to work no matter what that was. We’re all different, and it shows up in who we are at home, and naturally it should show up at work,” she said.

“She was a pastor but was never pushing her own religious beliefs on staff, but really pushing us to be inclusive and tolerant toward those who practiced and those who didn’t,” she said.

Ms. Toney Parker grew up in Markham and went to Hillcrest High School in Country Club Hills, where she was valedictorian of her class. She went on to Johns Hopkins University before attending business school at the University of Chicago. She earned a doctorate in ministry from the McCormick Theological Seminary while undergoing chemotherapy. She also taught business classes at Roosevelt University during this tough time.

She started a business, The Consciousness Bar, through which she’d provide talks to various groups of young people about developing bold, disruptive and conscientious leaders who transform lives by correcting injustices.

Ms. Toney Parker loved playing competitive sports and was not above trash-talking. She played basketball in college and more recently at the National Senior Games. And she was a passionate tennis player. She interviewed her tennis coach during a guest segment on WBEZ’s “Reset with Sasha-Ann Simons.” The chat centered on seniors getting a second chance to live out their sports dreams.

She also was active with the nonprofit Imerman Angels, where she provided guidance to other people who were living with cancer.

Ms. Toney Parker was first diagnosed in 2018 with cancer. It went into remission but came back in 2020.

“We were on a trip in December to Jamaica, and then things took a turn for the worse,” said close friend Cindy Harper Covington. “She’d made so much impact in the Chicago area.”

Ms. Toney Parker was Harper Covington’s cheerleader when she decided to return to school to get a business degree and doubted the decision when she walked into class with an old-school loose-leaf binder and saw the other students all had computers.

“Everyone looked at me like, ‘What in the world?’ And I just felt like, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ And she was like, ‘Cindy, you’re going to stay and learn. You have things to contribute.’”

In addition to her two sons, Ms. Toney Parker is also survived by Samantha Bush, whom she took in at a young age and counted as a daughter, and one granddaughter.

A visitation is planned for Saturday from 10 to 11 a.m. at Arnett Chapel AME Church in Morgan Park, with a celebration of life to follow immediately after.

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