Young Jim Parrish

Jim Parrish hed

James Ware Parrish III

“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

MooresMill swimming

Elkhorn Creek at Moores Mill dam

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

Parrish fam

The Parrish family: Jim (front) with Ike (father), Honeywood (sister) and Desdemona (mother)

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.


So long, farewell

It was an odd farewell lunch. Odd but nice. And rare. You know how these goodbye things go when a co-worker is leaving the job. Awkward. Always awkward.

The farewell act comes in three main varieties. No. 1, the going-away guy or gal ismissyou somebody you didn’t know that well, and it’s awkward to say all the mandatory things about getting together soon and staying in touch—when you weren’t together or in touch the whole time you worked at the same place. Or, No. 2, you did know her … and you didn’t like her. Then you have to conceal your glee that she’s going. Worse, you have to say you’ll miss her. And you won’t, see.

The third possibility is that you really did like the person, and you’re honestly, deeply sorry that she’s leaving. She was your top go-to for office dirt and for commiserating about the boss. An actual work friend, right? And that lunch is awkward because you really will miss your friend, and you’re afraid you’ll get all weepy at a work event.

Of course, there is a fourth option: A co-worker is fired, and a manager stands beside the fired guy as he’s gathering his personal stuff from his desk. The manager is making sure the guy doesn’t steal paperclips or jam client lists down the front of his pants or delete master files using his computer. And all this is taking place right beside your desk. You fake like you’re getting a personal call on your cell just so you can get the hell away. Now that’s awkward.

Those are all work farewells, but non-work goodbyes are just as awkward.

Long before I was married, I used to travel with my buddies to the beach—spring break, of course, and even during a few springs after college. We’d inevitably connect with a group of girls and sort of run around together for the week, meeting at the beach by day and the bars at night. And we’d get to know each other in that intense way you do when you’re thrown together and every day is fun and crazy. And then it’s time to go home.

We’d always make the usual goodbye promises about staying in touch. This was long before email or smartphones, and everybody knew that staying in touch was a long shot. But that’s what we’d say. And then, after that—one hundred percent of the time—we’d come to the final farewell, and one person or another would say, “Well, good luck.”

I mean every time, there’d be that “good luck.” I’d always think, Good luck? Like, in life? Good luck for the rest of our lives? That’s one hell of a parting wish. I mean, that’s a long, broad expanse to cover with a two-word phrase. It got so that saying goodbye to beach friends was awkward, because I would start dreading the “good luck” thing days before it was time to go home.

All farewells are just damned awkward. Except for the lunch I started to tell you about earlier. My boss, who’s a very nice lady, offered to take our department to lunch at an excellent restaurant in honor of a departing colleague. She was one of those Variety 1 co-workers. I barely knew her, so saying we’d have to stay in touch would have been, well … you know. But I didn’t.

Because she wasn’t there.

At about 9:30 on the morning of her last day, the leaving lady had to pick up her child from daycare. A fever, probably, or perhaps a fistfight. At any rate, she sent a reply-all response to the email reminding us about her farewell lunch, and she told us all … farewell.

With no goodbyes hanging over our heads, no thinking about the lies we’d have to tell about getting together soon and staying in touch, lunch was delightful. In fact, I told some colleagues later that I’d like to go out that way, too. Everybody could just go to lunch on my last day, but I wouldn’t burden them with my presence. Of course, there’s a name for that situation: dead co-worker.

To put that plan in gear, I’m going to go ahead and encourage all my colleagues to come to my visitation—after they have lunch together—and they’ll need to say something good about me to my wife and kids. And then, when they get to my casket, each one can lean in a bit and say it softly: Well, good luck.

Kentucky Across a Chest

It starts with the word across their chests.

I never ponder the depth of my attachment to Kentucky basketball until the end of the season. Whether I’m soaring with a national championship or sludging through the mire of what could have been, I’ll pause to ask myself, “Why am I so wrapped up in this team’s success?”

It starts with the word across their chests. The school’s players represent more than the school; they represent my home state. They carry the banner for Kentucky, and I, too, am Kentucky. I have degrees from both UK and Transylvania, and while my heart belongs to the people and experience of Transy, my soul belongs to Kentucky.

My love for Kentucky basketball is a legacy passed down from my father and a community of Kentuckians. For many in the commonwealth, our basketball heritage is our shared pride. Outsiders often say Kentucky fans cleave to basketball because there’s little else that’s positive in a state beset by poverty. I’m not blind to the difficulties of my Bluegrass brethren, but my life has been extraordinarily fulfilling, and yet I still attach myself to the fortunes of our basketball team.

And Kentucky’s recurring success buoys my devotion. Decades of loss and frustration would likely lead me to a lesser level of dedication. (Kentucky football comes to mind.) But I can’t say that for sure, because I’ve never had to live too long between successful seasons, whether it’s an SEC championship or a run at the national title.

Am I a rabid fan—a Kentucky crazy? I’m not. Oh sure, I’ve dabbled in the irrational: When Louisville beat UK in the 1983 NCAA Elite Eight, I gave away the TV I had watched the game on (after first vowing to throw it off an upstairs balcony). Granted, it wasn’t a great TV, and a friend in our watch party didn’t own a TV at the time, so it almost made sense. But really, the whole episode was little more than a public display of my allegiance to the Cats.

I no longer wrap my identity around the success and failure of our boys in blue, nor do I wrap on a black armband after a March loss. (Yeah, I did that, too.) But I have not divested myself of a deep-seated dedication to Kentucky basketball. Especially at tournament time. During each game I yell. I curse. I pace. I fall down to my knees. When we win, I am elated. When we lose, I am crushed.

But I’ll be ready for next year. I’ll follow every step of the journey toward a championship. And if we reach the Final Four, I’ll wear my favorite sweatshirt.

It’s the one with KENTUCKY across my chest.


I Love Reunions

There are two types of people in the world: those who attend reunions and those who avoid them.

I’ve always been an attender, you know. I love ’em. I go to college reunions, but I especially like my Woodford County High School reunions. There’s one this weekend, and I’m going.

A reunion is appealing on the most basic level because it’s a party, and there’s food and drink and music. And friends are there—people I’ve known for a long, long time.

Here’s where it gets puzzling, though. You can’t really say your reunion is packed with your best friends, can you? That’s probably because you’ve drifted apart from many of your buddies from back in the day, or maybe your closest friends from high school are reunion avoiders. The friends you see at reunions, then, might not be your best-ever friends. That’s how it is for me, anyway.

So why do I get such a good feeling about the people I reunite with?

It’s not because we’ve got so much in common. We likely went to different colleges (or not at all), moved to different towns or states, work in different fields, and hold different religious and political values. Sure, we shared the same high school 30 or 40 years ago, but we now lead lives apart. If I were lifetime besties with the folks I see at reunions, we’d get together more often than once every five years, right?

But we did share the same high school. I mean, we walked the same halls, we went to the same ballgames, and we cruised the same (lame) hot spots on weekends. You know, growing up in a Kentucky county with a single high school guaranteed us a set of shared experiences, even if our homes and families were quite different.

So even if we’re not everyday buddies, there’s something there. Something that runs deep and true.

When I go to the reunion this weekend, I won’t see the guys in my core group of buddies—not all of them, anyway. Instead, I’ll see three people from my home room, two from Ms. Cox’s advanced chemistry class, eight people I was in band with, a girl I took out a couple of times, and several girls I wanted to take out but was too chicken to ask.

And here’s the thing: When I talk to these folks, we’re going to help each other remember things we had both forgotten. Some memories are funny and some are painful—after all, we were teenagers navigating a transformative period. By talking to them, I’ll be reminded of people and experiences that helped mold me into the person I am today. And not only will they round out my memory of high school, see, they will round out … me.

At reunions, I have been reminded of my youth. I have been reminded of the person I was. Of the person I wanted to be. Of the person I became.

Hands down, the best thing I ever experienced at a reunion was getting to know Robbie. He


Robbie at our 10-year reunion, 1986

and I shared the same graduation year—1976—but little else. We didn’t have a single class together. His friends were ball players; mine were musicians. He was an athlete who started at quarterback and also excelled in basketball and baseball. He was one of the most popular guys in school, and I didn’t know him, not even a little bit.


It drove me crazy, mostly because he was adored by the girls, and I—even though I sat first chair trombone for four years (first chair!)—was not.

I didn’t know him, but I was always pretty sure he was a dumb jock. I didn’t know him, but I was pretty sure those girls made a big mistake.

Then I got to know Robbie. At a reunion. I can’t tell you how it happened, but we found ourselves in the same corner of a room or at the same table, and we started talking. We damn near had to introduce ourselves; that’s how separate our high school lives were.

And I’ll be damned if I didn’t like him. Robbie and I talked for a long time, and I discovered he was insightful and funny and a dang good guy. No wonder the girls liked him. In that one evening, my decades-long impression of Robbie was changed forever. And with it, my belief in the unfairness of high school hierarchy.

Don’t get me wrong. High school society is still wack. I mean, it’s owned and operated by teenagers. But because I went to that reunion and became friends with the Robbie I never knew as a teenager, I became a better adult. And at the next reunion five years later, we continued our conversation, comparing notes about our lives and our time in high school.

But Robbie won’t be at the reunion this weekend. He died a few years ago. I’ll miss him, believe me, and I’ll miss others who ran out of life before they became old men and women. I won’t dwell on it, though. I’ll be having such a good time comparing notes with other folks and rounding out other memories, I won’t let Robbie’s absence weigh me down. But there’ll be a moment or two.

Life zips by. It comes and it goes, and that’s a fact. So if I can catch a kernel of insight from a classmate at the reunion this weekend, I’m going to grab it. Those kernels won’t be around forever. Neither will those classmates. And neither will I.

I love reunions.