“Everybody loved young Jim Parrish,” it said in the Blue Grass Clipper on August 11, 1932. Everybody might have loved an old Jim Parrish, too, but we’ll never know. James Ware Parrish III drowned while swimming in Elkhorn Creek near Midway, Kentucky. He was 27.
I dearly loved Jim Parrish’s sisters: my grandmother Honeywood and my great-aunt Katherine (Nat). Both of them lived their lives, from start to finish, in Midway. Honey and Nat were educated women, fascinating and fun, and they treasured their family. It killed a part of them when their brother died. And it killed the family line, too: Jim was the last Parrish male.
Jim’s drowning began as a Friday afternoon swim with Honeywood, her friend Clara MacLemore, Whitsitt Wallace, and Clara’s nephew John Stone. The party had driven the mile and a half from the Parrish home (now Holly Hill Inn) to Moore’s Mill, which sat beside Elkhorn Creek. Below a dam that powered the mill was a pool that was a popular spot for swimming. Although the Clipper article doesn’t mention them, two children—Ike Rouse (my dad) and Clara’s daughter, Lily May—were among the swimmers, but they were whisked away before details of the drowning were recorded.
It’s confounding that Jim would drown. He was not just a strong swimmer, but a heroic
one, too. In an editorial in the same issue of the Clipper that carried the page-one news of Jim’s death, J.W. Reigner described an episode from four years before, when Jim and a cousin were driving across the bridge at Moore’s Mill and heard the cries of a woman: “My God … save my children!” Reigner wrote that Jim and his cousin leapt from their car and sprinted to the creek—undressing as they ran—jumped in and rescued two young girls “who were drowning when they had come up for the last time.”
And describing yet another amazing coincidence, Reigner went on to say that on the day before Jim drowned, “near the very spot where he lost his life,” he rescued “little Benny Roach … from a watery grave.”
Jim was an accomplished athlete in the water, then, and also on land. He played baseball and football at Midway High School and, later, at Centre College. During warm months, Midway boys played ball in the Parrish’s side yard, which was a perpetual baseball diamond. The gang also gathered indoors.
“Daddy had a pool table set up in the downstairs front hall, and all of Jim’s friends were welcome at any time,” Honeywood wrote in her journal, years later.
By all accounts, Jim was as pleasant a guy as you’d ever want to know.
“He was nice and friendly—not loud—and popular with the girls,” Lily May recalled recently. “Fairly tall with auburn hair.”
A Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity brother wrote this about Jim in the 1927 Centre College yearbook, his senior year: “Jim will not soon be forgotten by those fortunate enough to have known him. Always cool, apparently taking his time about everything, he has made a success in the classroom, on the diamond and wherever else he happened to be.”
Jim was the manager of the Centre football team and accompanied the team on road trips, including one to New York City in 1925. The ’27 yearbook contains a line about his role. “Jim Parrish did himself proud. He watched the college’s money as he would guard his life, and not a stray dollar eluded his watchful eyes.”
What Jim did not see that day at Moore’s Mill was a chunk of wood—or perhaps a stone—that swept over the dam and struck him on the side of his head, opening a hole in his skull and knocking him unconscious.
When the other swimmers noticed that Jim was not among them, they assumed he was behind the waterfall, hidden from view on a ledge of the dam. Not finding her brother there, Honeywood and the others frantically looked along the creek banks and swam around in the creek, which was swollen from recent rains.
Whitsitt drove to town and ran inside the general store owned by his brother, Top. “Ropes!” he shouted. “We need ropes to drag the creek at Moore’s Mill.”
News spread quickly in the small town, and dozens of people sped to the scene. “Everybody in Midway who had an automobile rushed there,” said the Clipper.
Jim’s father, Ike, was there, along with James Ware Parrish II, who was Jim’s uncle (after whom he was named). No fewer than four Midway doctors were there, too: Anderson, Risque and Voigt, as well Dr. B.F. Parrish, also Ike’s brother, who had retired from practice.
A half-hour after the search had begun, John Stone, standing in shoulder-high water some 15 feet from the dam, felt a body bump against him underwater. With help from Whitsitt, the visitor from Ohio dragged Jim to the shore; Mr. Ike met them there.
A rescue unit from the Lexington Fire Department arrived on the scene eight minutes after being summoned, and for more than an hour the firemen used a Pulmoter to force air into Jim’s lungs. Despite their heroic efforts, and despite the assistance of the four hometown physicians, Jim Parrish never drew another breath.
Mr. Ike “was taken away from the scene,” according to the Clipper’s account. “The father went all to pieces to see his only son lying there, cold in death.”
Ike’s brother, the elder James Parrish, was also overcome with grief. “It was more than he could stand. He broke down and had to be led to his automobile by Dr. Voigt.”
Those men were not the only family members and friends who suffered.
“Giving up Jim by drowning in the summer of ’32 was such a blow to us; it looked as if Mama couldn’t accept it. And Nat really never did. Jim was only 27 years old,” Honeywood wrote in her journal. She went on to explain that the Parrish name ended with the early deaths of not only her brother
but also a cousin, who had died at college more than a decade before Jim drowned.
“Uncle Ben lost his only son, Tom, at Princeton. He was 19 years old,” she wrote. “Two old brothers losing only sons.”
On the day of Jim’s funeral, the communal grief was profound. A brief funeral was conducted at the Parrish home, where Jim’s body laid in a gray casket, which was covered with flowers. The body was then taken to the Lexington Cemetery and followed by a long line of cars. Jim’s Midway friends and Centre College fraternity brothers served as pallbearers. His mother was so overcome with grief, she was unable to go to the cemetery. And according to the Clipper, even the funeral officiants struggled, including R.S. Wilson, the former minister of Midway Christian Church who had baptized Jim.
“Rev. Wilson was to commit the body to the grave, but he broke down and had to be led away,” the newspaper account said.
On that Monday morning, the people of Midway buried a young man with a bright future. At the time of his death, Jim was an agent for the American Tobacco Company. Prior to that, he had served for a time as principal of the Midway school.
“He was, in every way, a noble and splendid young man,” Reigner wrote in his editorial, titled “The Tragic Death of James Ware Parrish.”
“Of attractive personality, of marked ability, of affable disposition, of polished manners and of sturdy and stalwart manhood, it is so sad that he had to die before his work had hardly begun.”
With time, the people of Midway recovered, and the town went on to mourn the deaths and celebrate the lives of other friends and relatives.
But Jim’s family—his mom and dad and Honeywood and Nat—were never quite whole again. On that hot, heart-breaking day in August, their lives were robbed of a shining light, a kind soul.
Decades later, my sister Amy and I were helping our mom move furniture out of the old Parrish home, and Amy discovered a small box in the back of a drawer. It was packed with curly auburn hair. When Amy revealed the contents, Mom said, “Don’t let Honeywood see this.”
The sight of her brother’s hair, probably from his first haircut, would have been too painful—nearly 50 years after he drowned.
What would Jim have done with his life? What people would have been affected by his actions and words? What difference would he have made?
I live with my family on Moores Mill Road, and every day on my drive to work, I cross the same bridge Jim was crossing when he abandoned his car to save two drowning children. Beneath it runs the Elkhorn Creek, where the old mill dam used to stand … and where Midway kids used to swim.
Born a quarter of a century after Jim died, I never knew my great-uncle nor the children—my cousins—he never had. I would have spent time at his house; my family would have shared holiday meals with his. I would have learned things from him and, perhaps, followed his example.
On the face of it, I suffer the loss of Jim Parrish, too. It’s possible I would be a different, better person for having known Jim and benefitted from his strength of character.
But maybe I have. Maybe many of us have.
That boy Jim rescued, “little Benny,” grew up to be Dr. Ben Roach, described as a “medical legend in Kentucky” by a University of Kentucky president. Ben Roach co-founded the UK Markey Cancer Center, he established the Family Practice department at UK, and he founded the nursing program at what is now Midway University. Dr. Ben maintained a family practice in Midway for 55 years, and he treated and delivered countless residents, including me.
By all accounts, Jim was a kind and capable guy who made friends easily, and it’s fair to assume he was a significant influence on his companions in Midway and at Centre College. It’s certain that Jim made an immeasurable impact on his sisters, Honeywood and Nat, and they, in turn, encouraged, amused and inspired me. I never met the man, but I have to think he’s part of me … part of Midway.
“Everybody loved young Jim Parrish,” you know. And I would have loved an old one.