Rick Parker

Design director Rick Parker has won more awards than he can recall — Addys, Clios, Tellys — all the bullseyes that the advertising industry’s leaders aspire to hit. Now with Bullock Mannelly Partners in Atlanta, the former instructor says the career highlight that touches him most is finding a note a graduating student left on his desk. That note let Parker know he’d helped shape a life, just as another teacher once helped shape his.

“I was one of those artist kids,” the 57-year-old remembers his early days in East Point, Ga. “A lot of creativity in the family.” As a commercial art student at Headland High School, Parker put that creativity on display. Instructor Edward Ellerbee noticed, encouraging him to compete in an upcoming district event for SkillsUSA (then known as VICA). Actually, “encouraged” is probably not the right word. “He forced me,” Parker laughs.

That first competition was “an interesting life lesson,” he says. “I had a box of dime-store markers, a couple pens, a plastic ruler and some other knickknacks. Other students had these really nice art sets. It was kind of intimidating.”

Despite the self-inflicted intimidation, Parker won, learning that the quality of the one who wields the tool is more important than the tool itself. It was one of SkillsUSA’s many enduring lessons.

“I [also] learned how to do an interview, how to write a résumé,” he explains, “tangible, functional things you need during the development of your career that I’ve never forgotten.”

A year after that first competitive event, Parker would earn bronze on the national stage. One of the judges had founded an art school in Atlanta called the Portfolio Center, and it was there Parker chose to continue his education, graduating at the top of his class.

The years that followed were a whirlwind professional journey, taking Parker to some of the top ad agencies in the country — and whisking him around the world while directing campaigns for Coca-Cola and other titan-sized clients.

In 2011, the journey led him back to the Portfolio Center, this time as head of the school’s art direction program. It was here  he’d receive “the most precious thing I’d ever seen.” The note.

“A portion of anything that I do from here on out belongs to you,” reads a line from the student’s gratitude-filled farewell. It’s a sentiment Parker shares when he remembers Ellerbee and his time in SkillsUSA.

“It’s going to sound trite,” he says, his creative-director side always on the clock, “but I would not be here without it. I know that sounds too easy, but it’s the dead truth.”