The news came like a thunderclap, jolting and unexpected…followed by that painful silence awaiting a clash of lightning and the dreadfully long hours of solemn rain.
“Did you hear that Barry passed away,” read the message from our mutual friend John Wilson. Not “Barry Parker,” but just “Barry.” John could have sent that message to hundreds of people and they would have instantly felt the pain…the impact upon hearing of the passing of a special friend.
Barry was more than a best friend, he was a brother – he was a member of my family for four decades. As a writer-photographer team for stories at the Chattanooga News-Free Press, and afterward as partners in several publishing projects and ventures we formed a bond that could not escape enveloping our families. The memories of visits to each other’s homes and weekend trips to the Smoky Mountains became the photos, home videos and stories that are legend with my family and have been retold with uproarious laughter over the years. My daughters, Farrar and Nicole were each a couple of years older than Barry’s sons respectively, and by default were the babysitters to Adam and Jordan during these family gatherings in the mountains. Hiking, wading mountain streams, chasing tadpoles and frogs, and dinners at the cabin became the memories they all still cherish in adulthood.
Barry and I left the Free Press about the same time in the late 1970’s, when I lured him away with a book project commissioned by newly elected governor, Lamar Alexander. Creating the book, which was published as The Tennesseans, involved us crisscrossing the state in a lumbering motorhome – creating text and photography about communities and small towns that defined Tennessee. Early on, Barry often referred to us in press interviews as the traveling “odd-couple.” It wasn’t until the project was complete, and the book published, that I fully appreciated the validity of his account. As the driver and photographer, I was fervently chasing the light through rolling hills and mountain valleys from pre-dawn until sunset, then up again before daybreak to resume the chase. All the while, Barry was complacent with whatever spot or environment we landed. While frantically scurrying about with my camera and tripod, Barry eagerly found a good “spot” to savor the nuance and mood of the environment he was dealt. Sitting, often for hours, in the evening gloaming of an East Tennessee mountain orchard or on a Middle Tennessee horse farm, he would quietly observe and fill endless pads with handwritten notes – sometimes transcribing them on an old manual typewriter he brought along and would place onto an old cold drink ice box outside a roadside gas station, or in the booth of a country highway diner.
Regardless of the method, the word images that flowed from Barry’s mind to the page were pure magic – poetry in every sense. Had Sandburg, or even Frost lived in, and written about the South, their verse would have been compared to Barry’s heartfelt lines extolling the beauty and essence of our region. His text was the soul of countless books – many of which achieved national acclaim and awards – extolling the virtues and stories of organizations, families and individuals.
As the years passed, and book projects came and went, Barry became increasingly immersed and in tune with his faith. Sojourns across the countryside and into various outdoor environments, became more than an observation to be committed to the written word – they gained relevance for his introspective thought relating nature to God and the deeper meaning of everything he encountered. Whether it was a magnificent cloud passing at arm’s length over a mountain’s crest, a field mouse that had found its way into his day pack, or the most minuscule dragonfly lighting on the surface of spring-fed pool – everything in nature had a spiritual purpose and meaning.
As a person ages and takes account of the important aspects of their life, the great friendships, the momentous occasions, the personal shortcomings, an unsaid meaningful word or gesture - the measure of years we are allocated come into sharp, often brutal focus. I have often thought that had I passed first, and he given the opportunity, Barry would have created a far more eloquent elegy than anyone other than he himself rightfully deserved. Perhaps Whitman expressed it best with:
“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night.”
Upon hearing the news of Barry’s passing, my wife Peggy sadly, but accurately intoned, “The world needs more Barry Parkers.” In essence, all of those who knew Barry were touched by his star, his grace, his spirit, and in fact …we all carry the light that was his special gift.