The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Philip Dean Parker: A remembrance

Posted by Ron George on September 11, 2011

Loyalty (artist unknown)

Our lives are filled with people who change us, some more than others. A dear friend of mine, Don Wertz, called from Austin last week to report that another long-ago friend, Philip Dean Parker, had died unexpectedly of a heart-attack on Aug. 27 at age 67. For many reasons, Philip and I hadn’t spoken or corresponded for more than four decades, but his death put me in mind of a pivotal moment in my life in which he played a key role.

It was the fall of 1965, a week before the beginning of classes at Texas Christian University. Philip was a graduate student and the notorious leader of Fighting Horned Frog Marching Band’s “suicide squad,” a small group of first-year students to be drilled in the eight-to-five marching style of the university’s so-called Show Band of the Southwest. Philip was a relentless driller. His squad was first on the field and last off. They never stopped, or so it seemed. I remember watching them from the sidelines with our squad leader as we took a break around a water cooler. Suicide squad was still out there in the North Texas heat with Philip in the lead in a purple jump suit emblazoned with the band’s odd moniker. (Fighting horned frogs? Give me a break.)

He was six-foot-three and somewhat overweight, blond, fair-skinned and slightly effeminate, even as he came off as the mad bull of the drill field. Philip was intelligent, witty, charming in many ways and seemed to be fanatically loyal to the band, the school and the city of Fort Worth – he drove a Studebaker Avanti, which bore an oversized decal on the trunk proudly declaring that Fort Worth had been named an All-America City. Philip was generous, often extravagantly, and liked to come off as a wealthy patrician despite his passionately liberal political views.

All Saints', Fort Worth (Photo by Greg Westfall)

Philip was gay and hadn’t been out very long; and, he was a relatively recent Episcopalian. (The two seemed to go hand-in-hand.) Part of the substance of our relationship was Philip’s grooming me for sex. I wasn’t the only one, but I was one of the more tolerant of our first-year class. I enjoyed his company despite the sexual pressure. I guess I was a sucker for his witty charm and even his generous sweetness when it wasn’t saturated with sexual innuendo. He was my big brother during the disastrous spring semester of my first year at TCU when, among other things, I was pledged to the band fraternity. He and Don persuaded me not to drop out of the pledge class when I got fed up with ridiculous, humiliating, hazing rituals that had put me in the university infirmary. It was one of the many long, thoughtful conversations we had about life, love and loyalty, let alone the burning social issues of the day – civil rights, poverty, the draft and the war. I was 19, and I ate it up.

Philip invited me to church one day during band camp, and on a bright, sunny fall day in 1965, I followed him into All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, the ritziest church in town, the Westover Hills parish, a real blue-chipper. It was not a large church and was not extravagantly furnished, but it was terribly English high-church with a paneled choir and high-altar set amid an elegantly restrained reredos. It was and is a prototypical upper-class Episcopal Church – wealthy and conservative beyond belief. I had no idea, then, just how conservative it was. I just was overcome by the beauty of the music, the vestments, the setting – and that I was familiar with the texts of the liturgy, because they were word-for-word what I’d learned as a Methodist.

St. Timothy's, Fort Worth: Sky-high Anglo Catholic

From the first moment of walking into that church with Philip in the lead – in the west door, turn to the right, down the aisle past lovely stained-glass windows – I felt as though I’d come home. Even the rector’s supercilious instruction forbidding intinction because it was “Romish” didn’t put me off. There was an adept choir. Hymns were sung with energy by the congregation, which was awfully well-heeled. I’m sure I had on a coat and tie because Philip had said that’s how one dressed for church. He wore a madras sport coat; and, in fact, I may have worn one, too, with a yellow shirt, penny loafers and slacks that were too short.

I was instructed not to receive communion, but to cross my arms over my chest at the rail to receive a blessing. I was blessed by an ancient priest with gnarled, probably arthritic hands, his touch kind and gentle but deliberate as he pronounced, “The blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, be upon you and remain with you always.” I felt chills go down my spine. I didn’t want to leave the rail. Philip nudged me to get off my knees and follow him back to our seats in the nave. From that moment, I wanted to become an Episcopalian. I wonder, now, how different my life would have been had Philip Dean Parker not invited me to church that day.

I didn’t take confirmation instruction at All Saints’ and I wasn’t confirmed there. Don had begun attending St. Timothy’s in Fort Worth’s Polytechnic area, a world away from Westover Hills. It was sky-high Anglo-Catholic – smells and bells and solemn high mass, plainchant and pageantry. All Saints was the “more” compared with the Methodist churches in which I’d been reared; St. Timothy’s was the “even more” that hooked me on traditional Western Catholicism and the English spirituality associated with it. St. Timothy’s rector, the Rev. George Moore Acker, had confirmation classes twice a year. Don provided transportation to the spring 1966 class and also to church on Sunday; and during the week, from time to time, we’d attend Mass at Canterbury House just off the TCU campus, where Don taught me to be an acolyte. I took the high-church bait hook, line and sinker – and never again attended worship services at All Saints. I was confirmed at St. Timothy’s on Ascension Day, May 19, 1966, by the Rt. Rev. Charles Avery Mason. Philip, generous as ever, gave me a silver pinkie ring with his initials and my confirmation date inscribed inside. I still have it; wore it for years, but it no longer fits.

Philip completed his master’s at TCU then moved on to teach sociology, first in Louisiana then in New York. I don’t recall the last time I saw him or the last correspondence we may have had. Don kept in touch with him and has been a steadfast friend of mine and Philip’s ever since our college days. He told me the other day Philip was to have been honored this homecoming weekend as an outstanding ex-bandsman. Like I said, intensely loyal – even when others were not.

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2 Responses to “Philip Dean Parker: A remembrance”

  1. […] written elsewhere on this website of my very first encounter with the High Church tradition of Anglicanism. All Saints Episcopal […]

  2. John Mastenbrook said

    A wonderful remembrance that sparked my memories of All Saints church in Fort Worth. It was the first Episcopal church I had attended, having been raised in a loving, but bland, Presbyterian church in Fort Worth. I entered the church with my girlfriend and her family. I was agnostic, but immediately loved the music of the chanted liturgy and the smell of incense. I did not follow rules well then, which is probably true now also, and took communion many of the times I attended the church. There was a priest at All Saints who I will always remember. He was not the head priest, but managed the education programs at the church. His presence was so deeply loving and accepting that it was completely communicated through a warm handshake when I was leaving the church. His loving presence was stronger than the often cold rigidity that the head priest often projected. My memories of that church still glow with the warmth I felt there. The importance of loving acceptance in this often fractured and adversarial world was one of the gifts I received from attending All Saints.

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