Friday, January 21, 2011

Robert Parker

I met Robert Parker in the Spring of 1983 at a Hillsdale College graduation party. He was the father of Lisa, a classmate of mine. Mr. Parker, a slight man with white hair and an openly friendly expression on his face, approached me and struck up small talk about how I liked Hillsdale and how my year went.

He was aware that I was going to school for a semester, then taking a semester off to earn money, then going back for another semester, etc. I had already done that twice and was prepared to do that two more times in order to get my degree. Four years to finish my last two years of college. He asked if I liked doing it that way. I replied that it wasn't a matter of liking or disliking it, it was a fact of life and I had accepted that. Mr. Parker asked the same question again in a different way, then again, and each time I answered that it really wasn't up for was what it was. He pressed...would I continue that way if I had access to enough funds to complete my education in one year?

I paused, confused. What was he proposing, I asked. Well, he said, how about a $4000 loan repayable after graduation. That would be the equivalent of about $12000 in today's money. Not an insignificant sum for a seasonal roofing laborer.

I was dumbfounded. Mr. Parker barely knew me. We had only just met, yet based on stories from his daughter and from our brief discussion, he and his wife were willing to float me a loan, with no collateral, so I could finish school earlier than planned.

Cutting to the chase: I took the loan. I finished school in the Spring of 1984, got a job with May Company, and repayed the loan in about eighteen months, a year earlier than planned.

I can't say I was good at staying in touch with Mr. and Mrs. Parker over the years, but that does not mean I did not think of them regularly. They came to my wedding in Cleveland in 1988. The Parkers dropped off a guitar once, while passing through Cleveland on their way to Pittsburgh where their daughter was living. Mrs. Parker would write letters every few months to keep me updated with what was going on in their lives. I dont' really remember, but I hope I wrote back. She passed away suddenly in the 1990's, and I think of her every time I pick up the guitar, which is almost every day.

My contact with Mr. Parker continued in the form of yearly "He Said/She Said" letters that my wife and I stuff into our Christmas cards. Mr. Parker would respond with a short friendly note, or through a comment included on one of Lisa's letters. (They are wonderfully funny letters, by the way, and I have kept every one of them.) I noticed in his letter from 2009 that we, he and I, shared deep misgivings about our country's direction and our current crop of political leaders. To have Mr. Parker in my foxhole seemed...comforting.

I was always aware that time was not my friend, and that one day I would have to deal with the inevitable loss of people who have been important to me. My father died in 1999. My wife's extraordinary Aunt Dot passed away around that time. This year, when addressing the Christmas card to Mr. Parker, I had the passing thought that one year the card would come back...

Shortly after Christmas, I received a large envelope in the mail. It was from Lisa. I knew, just knew, what it was going to tell me. I opened it. Read it. Sat and cried.

Robert Parker had passed away in the Spring of 2010. His passing was painless, and his daughter was with him. She detailed how they spent the last few weeks together, preparing, remembering, laughing, being happy. His eulogy, delivered by Lisa at his memorial, was typical of her: funny, insightful, deeply touching. Of course I wish I could have been there. But reading it, by myself, and letting the emotions flow, was in some ways better.

There are people who, without meaning to, teach life lessons by example. More than anything, I was affected by Mr. Parker's gentility. He was refined but not haughty, thoughtful but not didactic, and generous but not foolhardy. I can only hope to conduct myself in a similar manner. If, one day, I come upon a young person who deserves a bit of help, and if I am in a position to make a difference, I hope to have the, the do a good thing.

p.s.--My father and Mr. Parker met at my college graduation. In discussion, it turned out both men were the same age, both had been drafted in World War II, both men served in the South Pacific, and both men were on the same island on the same day, at the same place. They determined this because they both remembered being present when a ship exploded in the harbor. After the War, Mr. Parker went to college and became a lawyer while my father went to work as a truck driver, then a commercial fisherman, and finally as a self-employed logger. One man became a man of letters, one man could barely read. It was a study in contrasts, but it was also a study in similarities. Both men were admirable for their integrity and doing the best they could. That, in my opinion, is what gives meaning to life.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this post; I thought this part was especially profound:
    "I was always aware that time was not my friend, and that one day I would have to deal with the inevitable loss of people who have been important to me."
    You see, I constantly forget that. Thanks for the sobering reminder.