When I was growing up in East Tennessee just across the river from downtown in South Knoxville, I went to school with a rather extraordinary guy named Tom Parkhill.
Our parents were friends so we would occasionally go over to his house. My earliest memories of Tom are how annoying he was as my sister and I played Barbies with his sister. My memory of elementary school is hazy so I don’t remember much of him from those years, but in high school he was a singular spirit who moved among us but was ever and always just himself.
Tom’s dramatic gifts were obvious as he was the star of our plays at South High School. My sister Lisa and I were in a production of “Tom Jones” with him in 1974. She was the leading lady, and my then-boy friend, Steve, played the leading man which called for my boy friend to kiss my sister. Tom Parkhill and I were character actors in this rather baudy comedy for high school consumption. I’m sure high schools would never stage this play today, but the early ’70s were a different time before politically incorrect was a concept.
Graduating from high school in 1975, Tom and I were a couple of years too young to fight in or protest against the Vietnam War. Tom seemed oblivious to political toil and trouble, as he went on to act in college and after. I read online that his credits include the movie King Kong Lives from 1986. But we were thrilled to see his angular face with a mop of black hair and glasses–sort of a grown-up version of Harry Potter before Harry was created–in TV commercials for local businesses. “There’s Tom Parkhill!”, we’d say as he sold some item long lost to my feeble memory.
In college, my friend Mary and I had arranged to meet for a movie at the Student Center, and she said a new guy she had met would be joining us. To my surprise it was Tom who I hadn’t seen in 10 or so years. How can anyone seem so at home in himself and yet so uniquely eccentric is beyond me, but Tom has always had this amazing aura of Tom-vincibility about him. Bright, a tad sardonic, quick witted, self-deprecating, and somehow obviously going places in his own way.
Tom is one of the few people I think could fully inhabit the director Wes Anderson’s movies. In fact, Tom brings to mind Wes’s criminally funny, nerdtastic creation Max Fischer, as played by Jason Schwartzman in the 1998 movie Rushmore, who plows through all life throws at him and talks his way out of everything. A man of all trades, Max could do anything and still keep his Rushmore Academy school jacket pristine. Pure magic. That’s Max–and Tom.
You might think Tom and I were close friends in high school, college, or as young adults. But to be honest, our lives went in disparate ways and only serendipitously did our paths cross. But whenever I saw him, he was always, never-changingly Tom.
He was far above us high schoolers in his natural skill, and it was obvious he could take it to the next level, and he did. As Tom acted in college, regional theater, movies, and commercials, I raised children and worked at the University of Tennessee, and then voila, about 10 or 15 years ago, I saw Tom had created the Tennessee Stage Company and is now its founding artistic director. He has done everything: raised funds, directed, acted, and mounted Shakespeare in the Park, then Shakespeare on the Square each summer in Downtown Knoxville–our hometown.
My husband a photographer, had a studio at the Emporium Building, and Tom’s office was right across the hall. Occasionally Tom would take afternoon naps on the couch in his office as he powered up to rehearse his thespians into the night.
Last year we swooned to see the announcement that Tom was starring in the play Harvey, which was also made into the classic and beloved film starring Jimmy Stewart in the title role–one of the films Kurt and I love best. Besides Jimmy Stewart’s magical characterization, I cannot imagine a person who is more like Elwood P. Dowd than Tom Parkhill. Elwood was a gentleman, a sweet antediluvian with his throwback manner and style, an absent-minded man who cared more about people than things. Just like Tom, a singular spirit walking diffidently, but unerringly, through his time.
I was not disappointed when my husband Kurt and I watched Tom play Elwood. The play was intimately performed with the actors surrounded by the audience on four sides. Tom’s parents, Grace and Tom Sr., were there to see the Sunday afternoon performance on February 1, 2015, and I recalled my mother saying Tom’s mother had been suffering from dementia and its inevitable decline. Still both his parents were bright-eyed, alert, and listened intently to the play. At one pivotal moment, Tom’s character said his line and made a rather poignant exit. As Tom left the stage, he could hear his dear mother quietly say, “Goodbye, Son.”
Tom was incredibly moved, of course, by his mother’s sweet words, and shared them with me after the play. I introduced myself to his parents, and despite her dementia his mother remembered my parents fondly. As a surprise for me, Kurt bought the painting of Tom as Elwood with Harvey, the 6-foot-3-and-a-half-inch (invisible-to-everyone-but-Elwood) rabbit, that hung over the fireplace during the play. Tom now smiles down on me as I write on the computer in my office.
About six months later, my mother called and said Tom’s mother had passed away. Kurt and I decided we would do what little we could for Tom and go to the service. I knew next to nothing about Tom’s mother, except she was kind and a friend of my parents. At the funeral, I learned she was a pioneering woman in a number of ways, touched many lives, and was one of those remarkably special achievers. She started out life as a desperately poor girl who nevertheless got her bachelor’s degree at Berea College in Kentucky when most girls did nothing of the kind. She met her own dear Tom Sr. a bit later than most of her peers. But they were soulmates straight away, and were simply adorable together the last time I saw them.
During the service I noticed a woman sitting behind Tom, touching his back and offering comfort as the pastor told Grace’s story. I thought the young woman might be a relative since I didn’t know Tom was dating anyone. But I hoped that maybe this dark-haired, electric woman might be someone special to Tom.
After the service, I hugged him and offered insufficient, but heartfelt, words of condolence. I asked Tom if the lovely woman was a relative but was delighted to hear the two of them were dating.
He invited us to come to his home with other friends and family. The house was full and after many other conversations, Tom introduced me to his lady, whose name sadly I cannot recall. She made me very happy when she told me she read one of my blogpost mentions of Tom and was reassured that she should accept his kind invitation for a date.
When I heard her story about reading my blogpost and then dating Tom, I was over the moon that my words had encouraged this beautiful woman to enter Tom’s life. Words are so insignificant beside the loss of a beloved mother, so it gave me great joy to think writing about my friend Tom helped bring him companionship and warmth in his time of sorrow.
I don’t believe anyone can ever replace Tom’s beautiful mother, Grace, who I am convinced fully inhabited and lived up to her name. But he will always have her love as she is ever near him wherever he goes. When our loved ones die, we still can hum the songs they sang, hear the words they said as they enouraged us through the dark times, and feel the warmth of their knowing smiles. Forever Tom is Grace’s Son–and nothing can ever take that away.
//Anna – 1/24/2016