John Parker's Newspaper Eulogy

by Bill Ruehlmann

The Virginian-Pilot, May 16, 2014

 

Our Stories: John Parker

by Paul Clancy

Originally in The Virginian-Pilot, September 4, 2011

 

John Parker, A Ghent Original

by Ray Gregory

Ghent Living, November, 2015

 

John Parker: A Friend Remembers

by Ray Gregory

Back in the 1970s and 80s I dabbled in various hobbies, and now and then I would sell my meager creations at the Ghent Arts Festival. I believe it was 1974 that I was peddling some chiseled-wood items I had made, and Rose and John Parker bought a mahogany compass rose medallion from me. The selling price, as I recall, was about $20 (1974 dollars).

Still hanging on the wall in the Parkers' kitchen in 2014, some 40 years later:

A few years after my brief first encounter with the Parkers, I accompanied a friend, who happened to work with John Parker at the public library where he was head of the reference department, to a Christmas party at the Parker house. To my amazement, the splendid old house looked just like something out of a Dickens novel, though it was packed with cheerful holiday revelers anachronously dressed for the year 1978.

 

Stained Glass

I believe it was 1980 when John and Rose hired me — I had recently opened a decorative glass business — to install some leaded glass windows in their house. They wanted to fill their kitchen windows with leaded opalescent glass (that would let in diffused light, but that could not be seen through) — so that they wouldn't have to hang drapes in these windows. I mentioned how beautiful and shady their ivy-covered backyard was and reommended a more translucent glass for their kitchen windows, but the customer was always right....

The Parkers' kitchen with its leaded opalescent glass windows:

 

A corner of the Parkers' shady backyard:

 

Continued Phone Contact

Since we moved in different circles — or maybe different eccentric ellipses — I didn't see Rose and John Parker again, although I did talk to John now and then on the phone. Back then, before the advent of the World Wide Web and search engines, if you wanted to find out some arcane fact that you couldn't tease out of your voluminous encyclopedia, what you did was phone the reference room at the public library to get someone there to search it out for you. Then you would wait, maybe an hour or more, for them to call you back with the answer. John Parker was often the guy who picked up the phone, then called me back. Librarian was perhaps the perfect profession for John Parker, with his love of reading, his encyclopedic recall, and his obsession with collecting, cataloguing, and arranging things.

 

"Welcome to the neighborhood."

Fast forward to 2012 when Georgette (my wife) and I bought a vacant lot on Mowbray Arch and were about to build ourselves a house there. In October, 2012, we attended a meeting of the Ghent Neighborhood League at the Chrysler Museum, where our architect was doing a presentation on our house to be built, a house that we had taken great pains to design to blend with the historic neighborhood. But as our architect spoke, or rather tried to speak, a disgruntled neighbor stood up and railed against our house to be. When this neighbor even mocked the turret and called it, too, inappropriate to the neighborhood, I had had finally enough. I stood up and shouted, "Are there no other turrets in Ghent?"

The new, howbeit neighborhood approprite, house at the corner of Mill and Mowbray:

After the fireworks over our house had died down and the agenda of the meeting turned to other things, a man wearing a fedora stood up and headed for the door. As he walked past me, he took my hand and squeezed it. "Welcome to the neighborhood," he quipped sarcastically, and both his words and his touch warmed my heart. It was only later that I realized this had been John Parker, whom I had last seen over thirty years ago, and whose house, I now recalled, was just around the corner from the lot my wife and I would be building on.

Later that night I wrote John Parker a thank you note for his impromptu act of kindness and sent it to his address. After receiving my note, John invited Georgette and me to stop by his house sometime. I was sorry to learn that Rose, who had been so joyful and incredibly nice, had died a few years earlier.

Below, the Parkers' grand old house, built by a prosperous grocer in 1897. The new family that has moved into it has done a wonderful job of renovating its interior for modern living and restoring its historical exterior.

 

A Visit to John's House

When Georgette and I visited John's house, we were absolutely amazed by the house as well as the innumerabe collectables John had filled it with, as anyone lucky enough to have witnessed them first-hand would understand. As soon as we walked into the kitchen, John led us to that mahogany medallion I had made. "Remember this?" he asked, and lifted it off the wall. It even had my name and the year 1974 written on its back. It was like a lesson in the value of collecting things, since I've never been much of a collector myself. I had forgotten all about selling that medallion to John and Rose. It had been decades since I'd even thought about my former wood chiseling hobby. But just then, it all came back to me.

 

John's Book About Ghent

Whenever we strolled down the sidewalks with John, he would start reeling off historical details about houses we passed and about their original owners. John could tell story after story about Ghent. He even wrote and self-published a book about the residents of the neighborhood when it began in the 1890s. At 268 pages long and 8.5" X 11" in size, it's chock full of quirky details and pictures, too:

Alas, for sale no more at Prince Books

 

John's Trash Bin Thing

Besides his book, John was famous in the neighborhood as the guy who rolled out (and rolled back in) people's trash bins for them. This was something he did every week, without fail or whatever the weather. I heard he started out doing it anonymously, but the word soon got out. The generous gesture even earned him many dinner invitations.

I never asked John why he did the trash bin thing. But knowing his trademark comic cynicism, he would probably have quipped, Anything for a free meal.

 

Literary Criticism

John was kind enough to read many of my short stories and give me a handwritten critique of each of them. His advice was often that I needed to fleshed things out more, needed to turn it into a novel:

 

Computers!

Several times John asked me to look up things for him online, since — amazingly in this day and time — he did not, and would not, own a computer. Every time I looked something up, I would tell him how easy it was to find things with search engines and how he should get himself a computer and get with it. This went on for some time, but remarkably, not long before his death, he told Georgette and me that he had decided that he finally would indeed get himself a computer. So I like to think that he might approve of this online remembrance of him, or at least he wouldn't waste too many of his cynical jabs on it.

 

Fun Times

Georgette's and my friendship with John would last the next year and a half. It would encompass various informative field trips and a number of dinners at our house and at local restaurants, even though John's notions of good cuisine differed widely from ours — he would typically refuse to eat his veggies, and I think he was genuinely incredulous when we were less than wowed by his favorite pizza place. Nevertheless, we looked forward to living right around the corner from him and having him over our house as often as his busy schedule of eating out with friends would allow. But then — he was gone. He will certainly be missed.

John mugging and goofing with Georgette:

Here Georgette appears to be making some point, with John poised for one of his trademark cynical comebacks, as Noah bides his time. The two humans were often in less than total agreement about things:

John, Georgette, Cici (like John, freed now from her mortal entanglements), and me (behind the camera) on a curious-inscriptions hunting trip to Elmwood Cemetery:

 

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