A year ago President Ford chose Maj. Gen. Harold R. Parfitt, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, to be governor of the Panama Canal Zone...Parfitt’s life as governor (at a salary of $37,800) is a far cry from his hard-scrabble beginnings in Coaldale, Pa., where his father was a miner.
A year ago President Ford chose Maj. Gen. Harold R. Parfitt, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, to be governor of the Panama Canal Zone. By comparison, observes the trim, 54-year-old West Point graduate, the wars were a piece of cake. Traditionally awarded to a senior officer in the Army Corps of Engineers, the dual assignment as Canal Zone governor and president of the Panama Canal Co. was once regarded as among the plushest the armed services offered. No more. For the past two years the U.S. and Panama have been wrangling over a new treaty to replace the outmoded pact of 1903, which bisected Panama and gave the U.S. perpetual control over the 10-by-51-mile Canal Zone. Since treaty negotiations began, the zone has been the scene of Panamanian nationalist agitation, low morale among the canal’s approximately 3,700 American employees, charges of discrimination in housing and schools, and growing financial distress. “This is probably the most challenging assignment I’ve ever had,” says the understating Parfitt.
Two weeks ago the big ditch was virtually closed down as pilots, tugboat crewmen, lock mechanics and other canal employees went on a five-day wildcat “sick-out.” It was the worst crisis in canal history. The workers were protesting a proposed wage freeze intended to reduce the company’s expected $14 million deficit. More than 175 vessels rode at anchor, and the loss to world shipping was reckoned at $2 million a day. Parfitt finally persuaded the strikers to go back to work by promising that he would seek a reversal of the freeze order. “We distrust the Armythey called us gutless sheep,” said one Zonian (as residents are called). “We don’t even trust our government or State Department, but we do trust the governor.”
When he accepted his appointment a year ago, Parfitt had already served a hitch as lieutenant governor of the Canal Zone from 1965 to 1968, and realized hard times lay ahead. “I wouldn’t have gone back again had I not liked and respected the people,” he says. Once, in the halcyon days of Canal Zone society, nobody doubted that the treaty’s “in perpetuity” clause meant just that. Now the 38,400 Americans and 5,500 Panamanians who live and work there are apprehensive. There is, says Parfitt, “a kind of shadow that hangs over them. The treaty is being negotiated in secret, and they realize that there are going to be substantial changes. A fear of the unknown is rather dreadful.”
A reminder of the carefree old days is the gubernatorial mansion where Parfitt and his wife, Patricia, live in a setting of tropical splendor. The handsome residence at Balboa Heights is the hub of the zone’s social life. “There are a lot of clubs and organizations that consider it their home, and we agree,” says the governor. “The downstairs is theirs. The upstairs is ours.” The two Parfitt daughters, Karen, 19, a junior at Southern Methodist, and Beverley, 16, who also attends school in Dallas, vacation in the Canal Zone.
Parfitt’s life as governor (at a salary of $37,800) is a far cry from his hard-scrabble beginnings in Coaldale, Pa., where his father was a miner. Fulfilling a boyhood dream, Parfitt was commissioned in 1943, a year before the Normandy invasion. Injured by shrapnel on Omaha Beach, he still bears a deep scar on his hand. In his present mission, he perceives that the hazards are more likely to be psychological. “My greatest wish,” he muses, “would be to reestablish the tremendous morale that has been the hallmark of the canal operation until we finally divest ourselvesif we ever doof the thing. That, at least, is in the interest of both our countries.”