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Friends remember an outdoorsman

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By John Barnhart

It's been said that you can tell how well a man has lived his life by the number of people who attend his funeral.

Gene Parker, who died of cancer at his home on Parker Road, must have lived very well, considering the fact that as many as 900 people passed through Tharp Funeral Home last week during visitation hours.

When his funeral was held at Main Street United Methodist Church, every seat in the sanctuary was filled. Every seat in the balcony was filled. Standing, lining the walls of the sanctuary, were national park rangers, from Virginia and other states, and Bedford County Sheriff's deputies. Bedford firefighters, in uniform, state troopers and state game wardens were there. Two uniformed game wardens were among the pall bearers. There were 350 people in attendance.

When his body was laid to rest in Oakwood Cemetery, the procession was led by National Park Service vehicles, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries vehicles and a State Police cruiser. Members of Lynchburg's American Legion post were on hand to render full military honors and a gun salute.

This all meant a great deal to Parker's family.

"We just feel extremely blessed and thankful for all the prayers that have gone out for Gene and his family," Julie Parker, his wife of 31 years, said, thinking of all the cards they've received.

It was less than three years ago, Dec. 31, 2005, that Gene's father, Billy Parker, died. The elder Parker was a World War II veteran and the only one of three brothers to come home alive from the war. One of the brothers, Earl Parker, was one of the Bedford Boys who was killed at D-Day. Billy Parker was also an avid outdoorsman and noted bear hunter.

Like Billy Parker, Gene Parker answered his country's call, serving in the Army in Vietnam. Like his father, Gene was an avid hunter. Unlike his father, who made it to 89, Gene Parker died at 61.

He will be sorely missed by everybody in the outdoors sportsmen community.

"He was one of our guides," said Barry Arrington.

Arrington is involved with Wheelin' Sportsmen, which sponsors a wild turkey hunt every year for disabled hunters. The guides are volunteers who make it possible for these wheelchair bound hunters to get into the woods.

Parker did this for the last time on April 26. Arrington noted that even though Parker was sick, he showed up at 5 a.m. to help others. His help was valuable.

"Gene was the best turkey hunter I have ever known," Arrington said.

Arrington, an avid hunter himself, suffered an injury after falling from a tree stand during deer season in 1994 that left him wheelchair bound and only limited use of his arms. Parker took him out on his first turkey hunt after the injury. He scouted an area, heard a turkey gobble and figured a way to get Arrington's chair in. Parker and another man got Arrington in place and Arrington got the turkey.

Arrington added that the injury left him unable to call turkeys ? his diaphragm works poorly. Parker bought him a mouth-operated turkey call.

"He was willing to help anybody," Arrington said.

When he first decided to organize a Wheelin' Sportsmen hunt, Parker was the first person Arrington contacted. Parker didn't hesitate when asked for his help.

"You've got it," he told Arrington.

Vernie Kennedy has known Parker all his life.

Kennedy's father, Carl, and Billy Parker were hunting buddies before Vernie was born. Vernie, in turn, hunted with Gene's bear hunting group. This past December was Gene Parker's last bear hunting season and the group treed a bear in the National Forest near Kennedy's property. They called him and offered to let him harvest it. Kennedy arrived and he and Parker looked the bear over.

Although it was a legal bear, the two noted that it was a young female and would probably raise a cub this year. They decided not to shoot it.

"Gene was a man among men," said Sharon Thompson, of the Bedford Outdoor Sports Association.

She said that he was one of the organization's founding members. Every year he designed the centerpiece for the outdoors show the organization puts on. He did his last one on March 8, even though he was already sick.

Thompson also pointed out the support Julie, Gene's wife, gave him during his eight month fight with cancer.

Daniel Brown, former superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway said that Gene Parker got the nickname "Parkway Parker." The Parkway was a natural extension of Parker's family and Brown said Parkway employees were often guests at the Parkers' farmhouse. Roast bear was often on the menu.

Julie Parker said that Gene's mother taught her how to properly cook bear meat. Kelly Mayhew, the couple's youngest daughter, said that it isn't greasy if properly cut and prepared. She noted that her friends often referred to the Parker home as the house of firsts. This often meant that they ate certain things for the first time in their lives. Julie added that their friends always wondered what the Parkers would bring to a Super Bowl party. It was usually something with wild game.

Julie noted that Gene always loved having guests.

"He loved it when we had big crowds of people," she said.

Gene Parker was always involved with the preparations. He even helped cook the meat for his own retirement party.

He also wanted to cook for his daughter's wedding party, noted Kelly Mayhew, his youngest daughter. He was too ill to do that by the time the May 17 wedding took place, but he still was able to walk her down the aisle, stand with her and give her away. Kelly said that after she turned to face the pastor, she heard applause behind her. That was for Gene who and just given a two-handed thumbs-up sign. Family friends understood that he meant that he had made it. Later, he was able to dance the father-daughter dance with her. Being able to give her away was one of his goals, his wife noted.

Making it to Father's Day was another. They gave him a camouflage upholstered recliner.

The family found the large number of law enforcement officers who showed up heartwarming. Captain Kevin Adams, of the Bedford County Sheriff's Office, noted that many of them knew Gene Parker personally. While still a park ranger, he taught a tracking course for their tactical team. This was something he conducted regularly and has taught officers from a number of law enforcement agencies This included federal secret service agents.

"I'd rate him as an expert tracker," said Adams.

His daughter Kelly will attest to that. When she was a senior in high school, she had two friends staying overnight with her. They knew that there was a party going at another place on Parker Road and made arrangements for somebody to pick them up at the side of the road. They didn't tell Gene and Julie about the plan. Instead, they sneaked out a window in the middle of the night, spent about an hour-and-a-half at the party, and sneaked back in, thinking they had pulled the wool over Gene's eyes.

"We snickered and laughed, " Kelly recalled.

Several years afterward, she and her father were talking and tracking came up. Gene mentioned that he was always good at tracking, "even you girls." Kelly was stunned to learn that he knew all about their late night excursion, but said nothing about it. He had spotted three sets of footprints in the dewy grass that morning, noted a mark one girl had left climbing out the window and saw their footprints in the gravel along the side of the road. They disappeared, so he knew somebody had picked them up.

As the girls came back safely, he said nothing. He thought is was funny that they had tried to pull one over on him, and failed. Neither girl was ever in any trouble and both were routinely on their school's honor roll.

"Y'all thought I was oblivious," he commented.

"You would never get anything over on Gene Parker," Kelly said.

Capt. Adams noted that Parker knew the layout of the land around the Parkway and the Peaks of Otter like nobody else. He knew the land like his own backyard. If they were looking for somebody, either a fugitive or a person who was lost, Gene Parker was the guy they called for help.

Even after he retired, law enforcement called on him. In one case, they were looking for a college student near Flat Top.

"He [Gene] knew exactly where the man was," commented Julie.

Parker went to an overlook and called the man's name. The man called back and Parker had such a good sense of direction that he was able to pinpoint the man's location. Parker was contacted at 8 p.m. and they had the lost hiker safely out of the woods before midnight.

When he was still a ranger, Parker once helped two new rangers who were doing a survey and had gotten lost. They reached him on his cell phone and Parker talked them safely out of the woods. It was dark but, from their descriptions of what they could see, he knew exactly where they were.

Zeph Cunningham recalls Parker's prowess at finding people in the woods. Some, like a lady from Florida, were happy to see him. She was lost on Flat Top and managed to contact Parker, who was still a ranger then.

"He talked her out through Arrington's Orchard," Cunningham said.

By the time she came out, they were there waiting for her.

"There's Gene!' she said.

"We were successful 100 percent of the time," Cunningham noted, stating that Parker has talked a number of lost people out of the woods. A person could describe rocks and a crook or knot on a tree and Parker would know right where the person was. He could either talk them out or go get them.

Of course, there were a few folks who didn't want to be found. Cunningham said Parker was good at catching ginseng or animal poachers. He also used his tracking expertise to help corrections officers, or any law enforcement hunting a fugitive.

"He could see stuff we couldn't see," said Cunningham. "He'd track so fast we could hardly keep up with him hiking."

He was also highly adept at using dogs, knowing how to combine his eyes with their noses to enhance the effort.

Cunningham said that David Scott Donlan, the world's foremost man tracker, has stated that he has never seen anybody with Gene Parker's ability. Donlan operates the Tactical Tracking Operations School and Parker was certified to teach through the school. He's taught local and state police officers from all over the United States as well as federal officers.

Gene Parker had a tremendous ability to understand people. This helped him find people because he could accurately figure out what they would do. This ability came in handy with his daughters. He was able to figure out where each girl's love was, and encourage that.

Kelly has a degree in communications and journalism from Lynchburg College and works as a marketing specialist in Roanoke. Gene early on recognized her niche and encouraged her. When she decided to go to Lynchburg College, Gene wrote the letters to get her in as a legacy student. Legacy students are children of Lynchburg alumni and Gene got his bachelor of science degree in biology from there, just before being drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam.

In Jaime's case, the house had an aquarium for stuff she would catch, as a child, in a nearby creek. Later, he was her technical adviser on school science projects that won prizes. He's also the one who encouraged her to apply for a job as a ranger. She served there for 10 years and ultimately became lead interpretive ranger.

Now, she lives in Oregon and works for the Bureau of Land Management. Her father indirectly helped her find her fianc?Gene, who was also a wildland firefighter, got Jaime involved in that work. She met the man she's going to marry at a fire.

Gene Parker wanted to make sure his daughters knew how to do a variety of activities. He involved them in every aspect of farm work and took them hunting. A lot of this was just wanting to be with his family. He was always at Kelly's swim meets and Jaime's volleyball games. The house was open to their friends and they noted there were times when there were 20 little girls running around the house.

"He was always there to support us," Kelly said.

"Besides, how many girls know where the deer tenderloin is, how to cut it out and how to cook it," added Jaime.

Another way he shared his love of the outdoors was through the Bedford Outdoor Sportsmen Association and his outdoor show centerpiece.

"I asked what was next, the Peaks of Otter with a waterfall?," David Looney, the organization's treasurer, recalls asking several years ago.

It was meant as a joke, but the next year, Parker came to the Bedford Armory where the show was held and built a mountain using tables covered with camouflage and covered it with foliage, including live plants he had collected. He set up pumps that powered twin waterfalls, one coming down each side of the mountain. The waterfalls fed two ponds stocked with live trout, something that surprised visitors.

"There's live fish in there!" one exclaimed.

"He touched people in a lot of different ways," Looney said, recalling the times Parker took youth on spring turkey hunts.

Gene Parker ultimately became district supervisory ranger. His wife said that her husband loved the Peaks and this area and was unwilling to relocate in order to climb the Park Service ladder. All of his 34 years with the Park Service was spent here, except for special assignments. He went out west to fight wildland fires and was sent to Alaska on special assignment when the Exxon Valdez spilled its load of crude oil.

She said he loved his job.

"All the years he worked for the Park Service, he never dreaded going to work," she said. "It was kinda nice having a husband who came home in a good mood."

"God has played an important part in our lives," said Julie Parker.

This was important in the Gene's battle with stomach cancer. The couple did devotionals together and they were together a lot.

"Every waking hour," commented Kelly.

"I promised him I would take care of him," Julie Parker said.

Gene Parker, in turn, still had an urge to help others. In June, he saw smoke and realized there was a fire on a neighbor's farm. Wearing a pack that fed the IV stuck in him, he got in his pickup truck, with his wife driving, and went to the scene. They got there before firefighters and Parker got out of the truck, got on a small tractor and pulled some of his neighbor's equipment to safety.

"He was pretty sick by then," Julie commented.

"I was so proud watching him just be Gene Parker helping a neighbor."

His last woodland rescue occurred in July. Zeph Cunningham said that two hikers got lost in the woods. The rangers called Parker and he helped them, by phone, find the hikers.

"That made him happy," said Cunningham. "He wanted to go."

August 9 was an important day for Parker. It was the beginning of bear chase season. He was in the hospital and Jaime recalled that he woke up and asked, "What day is today."

"Friday," she replied.

"Tomorrow is Saturday, Aug. 9 and I don't have my hunting license," he told her.

Jaime got the license, with everything he needed to hunt in the national park.

He never got to use it, although he did get one last ride on the Parkway.

Zeph Cunningham said that the ambulance that took brought him home from Roanoke, the Wednesday before he died, took him over the Parkway and stopped at the Great Valley overlook. It backed up, opened its doors and Parker gave a park ranger talk about what they were looking at.

"It was his last patrol," Cunningham said.