Robert L. Parson has suffered tragic personal losses during his 40 years at The University of Tennessee Space Institute, but he says his “UTSI family stood with me during those hard times.”
He joined the Institute’s staff as custodian on June 15, 1966, before the main building was completed and only three other maintenance employees were on board and years later took his turn as manager of the physical plant.
Now he is retiring as Craft Supervisor with hopes of spending more time at home in Hillsboro caring for the seven horses that he says belong to his grandchildren and maybe traveling with his wife Brenda.
“The biggest change I’ve seen at the Space Institute was when the MHD facility closed,” he says. (The Cold Fired Flow Facility for many years was the site of significant research into magnetohydrodynamics before being phased out by the U.S. Department of Energy in the early 90’s.)
Parson treasures fond memories of the late B.H. Goethert, first director and dean of UTSI, and Dewey Vincent, first physical plant manager who “did it all from construction and electrical work to pouring concrete,” as well as Charlie Burton, Bob Kamm, and others who also have passed from the scene.
Seventh of eight children, Robert was three years old and living in Midway (“Some call it ‘Tick Bush’) halfway between Monteagle and Sewanee when his father – Calvin Parson — died of pneumonia.
“He broke a rib while pulling stumps and developed pneumonia,” Robert said. “One morning he said he was feeling better and went to milk the cow. He came back, lay down, and died. I was three, and one sister was a year old.”
“Mama (Katie Gilliam Parson) raised all eight of us kids by herself. She washed clothes for different people at our spring, using a wash pot and rub board.”
In 1966, Robert was working in Lawrenceburg on a project for Monteagle Silo Company the day his brother-in-law Wilson Hill drove over to tell him that Dewey Vincent needed a custodian.
Norman Adams of Manchester was Vincent’s first custodian, John C. (Charlie) Burton was the second, and Hill was the third.
“I just took the job until I could find another one,” Robert said. “I found a couple, but I’ve stayed with this one.” He worked evenings for three months, then shifted to the midnight-to-morning shift. He laughs about the scare he got about 3 o’clock one morning when, thinking he was all alone on the campus, he reached to open the door to a restroom and it suddenly swung toward him.
The late Lloyd Crawford, chemical engineering professor noted for working odd hours, “was coming out as I started in. We almost scared each other to death.”
Charlie Burton, who had barbered in a Tullahoma shop, sometimes brought his tools to UTSI at night or on Saturday. “Yeah, he cut my hair a time or two on Saturday,” Parson said, “and Dewey’s, too.”
John Caruthers, who also is retiring June 30 as UT associate vice president and UTSI chief operating officer, said, “Robert was involved in one way or another with the construction of every building on the campus. He literally helped to build UTSI from the ground up.”
Robert L. (Bob) Young, professor and associate dean emeritus of UTSI, remembered that Parson, “an excellent mechanic and good electrician, was always cheerful, busy, and ready for any task that was needed. He was as versatile as Charlie Burton, as ambitious as B.H. Goethert, capable as Robert Kamm, cheerful as Charlie Weaver, and as conscientious as Dewey Vincent. He will be much missed and is irreplaceable.”
A-Wing, including the lobby, was unfinished as well the second-floor of C and D wings when Parson arrived.
“I had been here before, hauling mountain stone for my first cousin, Roy Lee Gilliam, so I was familiar with the layout. Mr. Jabo Moore was putting name plates on the doors when I came. We did everything – poured concrete, built sheet-rock walls, patios…”
A quiet man, with a good sense of humor, Parson volunteers that “I’ve been through a lot since I have been here. My mother passed away in 1981, my second wife died in 1984, two of my brothers died, and my son Marty Dewayne was killed in 1991 just before he turned 20. My UTSI family has stood by me through all of that.”
On a happier note, he talks about his grandchildren – Fallon Oakley, daughter of Rita Parson, his daughter who lives in Kentucky — and children of his step-daughters who live close by.
“Victoria Stephens is nine – she says nine and a half. She planted a cabbage and it grew to 17 pounds and got first place at Grundy County School.
“The grandchildren (Niki Lancaster, Cassandra Gunn, Fallon and Victoria) — own the Tennessee spotted and walking horses. Three of the horses haven’t been broken yet. I plan to do that. And I have a few acres on the mountain that I need to clean up.” Then, perhaps he and Brenda will buy a camper. He also expects to spend some quality time with “Jarrett,” a big yellow lab that he didn’t expect to ever own. However, Victoria was with him when they saw the pups.
“We’ll look at them,” her grandfather said, “but we’re not buying any dogs.” Then Victoria petted one of the pups, and Robert whispered to Brenda: “Get the checkbook.” He’s glad now.
“I named him Jarrett,” he says. “After the race car driver.”
Perhaps Jarrett will help the girls keep up with their horses … and with their grandfather.
ROBERT L. PARSON
Robert Parson’s grandchildren include, from left, Niki, a recent graduate of Grundy County High, Cassandra Gunn, and Victoria Stephens.