Mike Parker possessed a unique job skill – typeface design – that he believed helped shape the way we think, read and behave.
“I teasingly called him the Font God,” said his ex-wife and caregiver, Sibyl Masquelier of Cape Elizabeth.
Mr. Parker died Feb. 23 at Maine Medical Center in Portland from complications of stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. He had lived for several years at Oceanview in Falmouth and most recently at the Hawthorne House in Freeport. He was 84.
Mr. Parker spent much of his adult life designing type – he helped develop more than 1,100 typefaces.
“Mike was a brilliant human being,” Masquelier said. “For him, typefaces were the most critical thing in our civilization.”
He was born in London on May 1, 1929, to Russell Johnston Parker and Mildred Grace Best Park. His family came to America in 1942, but seven years later his father became the victim of a bomb on an airplane.
Masquelier said that Mr. Parker’s father was passenger on a Canadian airliner that exploded in flight after a man had created a clock bomb using dynamite. The man, Albert Guay, a Canadian jeweler, was trying to kill his wife, which he did. He was apprehended and sentenced to death.
“Type is my life. … My father was murdered and I was 18 years old,” Mr. Parker said in a taped interview with the Type Directors Club. “It (the airplane) exploded and crashed on landing. I didn’t know what to do, so I joined the Army.”
Mr. Parker left his undergraduate program at Yale to serve in the Korean War. He returned to Yale after the war and was mentored by Alvin Eisenman, director of Yale’s School of Design.
Eisenman recruited and mentored students from all over the world, including Garry Trudeau, author of the comic strip “Doonesbury.”
After graduation, Mr. Parker traveled to the Plantin Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, where he helped recategorize 16th century matrices, dies and equipment that had been hidden from the Germans during World War II.
In 1959 he joined Mergenthaler Linotype Co. Under his leadership, more than 1,000 typefaces, including Helvetica, were added to its library, which became the industry standard.
Mr. Parker was interviewed for the 2007 film “Helvetica,” a feature-length independent movie about typography, graphic design and global visual culture.
“I mean you can’t imagine anything moving, it is so firm,” he said of Helvetica in the 2007 film. “It is not a letter that bent to shape, it’s a letter that lives in a powerful matrix of surrounding space. It’s … oh, it’s brilliant when it’s done well.”
Masquelier said Helvetica typeface is used everywhere – on New York City subway signs, at retail stores, and in car manufacturers’ logos.
In 1981, Mr. Parker and Matthew Carter co-founded Bitstream Inc., a type design company in Cambridge, Mass. Bitstream became highly successful during the 1980s when digital design and production, desktop publishing, and personal computer use became universal in the Western world.
Over the years, Mr. Parker helped dozens of young designers get their careers started.
The Type Directors Club cited Mr. Parker as a print historian and industry leader who shepherded the development of typography from hot metal to photocomposition to digital.
A few years ago, Mr. Parker returned to Maine. As his health deteriorated, Masquelier became his caregiver. She always respected his brilliance and generous spirit.
“Mike could connect the dots like no one else,” said Masquelier, who was married to him for 12 years. “He wanted to create the clearest type because he wanted people to read. He felt type influenced the way we way we read, the way we think and the way we act. Type design is a very exact science but it is also an art form.”
His family plans to hold a memorial service this summer to celebrate his life.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: