Rooted in Sand

BY Dorothy Rankin

Photographs cover the coffee table at Robert Parker’s home. They are mementos of a family whose story became entwined with the history of Wrightsville Beach in the 1940s and remains so to this day.

Jack Parker Robert’s father was born in Lillington in 1907. He worked for the state paving roads and met his future wife Gladys when working in Wallace. “She rode by on a bicycle ” their son laughs “and that was it.”

Robert was born in 1945 at James Walker Memorial Hospital in Wilmington and lived on South Sixth Street with his parents and his older sister Jackie until the next year when the family moved to Wrightsville Beach.

It was an environment made-to-order for the Parker family. “We were very water-oriented ” Robert says. Soon the family had a small boat and was spending as much time as possible fishing crabbing or just being on the water. Robert learned to water ski when he was 6. It was he remembers a very special time. “[Wrightsville Beach] was wide open. People didn’t lock their doors; it was just a very friendly atmosphere. Everybody knew everybody ” he says.

“When we moved here ” Robert recalls shuffling through the photographs “we moved to a little wooden shack that was literally right under the water tower on Waynick Boulevard. My Dad had been hired to be the first policeman after World War II at Lumina.” With the area full of current and former servicemen Jack Parker seemed ideally suited for the job. “He had a lot of affinity for the military the boys who came back from the Army after World War II and he never arrested them. He would actually take them home and make sure they were okay.”

Soon the city recognized Jack Parker’s other abilities; “They discovered my father had something of an engineering background.” It wasn’t an actual engineering degree but Jack’s experience gained largely through building bridges for his uncle throughout the Southeast was just what the community needed. The town was growing and someone had to oversee its infrastructure so “they eventually made Dad director of public works ” Robert says.

It was a position that suited Jack Parker’s nature as well as his talents. “He was this extremely helpful caring person ” Robert recalls. “I remember many a night when my Dad would be awakened at two or three o’clock in the morning by the phone ringing — he had the phone right there by the bedpost. In the middle of winter if somebody’s pipe burst they didn’t know who to call other than Jack Parker. So he’d get up and go down and turn their water off for them.”

Gladys made her own contributions to the town. “In 1947 my mother being the very independent woman that she was opened a beauty salon … near Dorothy Roberts’ grocery store. She only had one little basin.” The business flourished though expanding and growing over the years. “Mother built a tremendous clientele of really loyal people over the next 47 years.”

The Parkers’ service to the town wasn’t limited to their professional endeavors though. In the early 1950s Jack and Gladys established a club for teenagers in a converted pump house. At that time Robert remembers an empty field lined Salisbury Street from the stoplight at Johnnie Mercer’s Pier all the way to where the water is. Jack went to the town and got permission to turn the pump house “that really wasn’t much in use” into the Wrightsville Beach Teenage Club. Robert recalls watching his teenage sister Jackie (who became Wrightsville’s first female lifeguard) dance there with her friends. Gladys and Jack became chaperones for the club. “They took it upon themselves to develop that for the kids ” Robert declares.

Behind the Teenage Club Jack added a playground. “He built a tennis court. He put basketball goals at either end of the court ” Robert reminisces. “We had these great big swings — these huge metal or steel swings — that we’d jump out of and have a great time.”

Not all of Robert Parker’s memories are idyllic however. “Hurricane Hazel was a very traumatic thing for the people who lived at Wrightsville Beach ” he says. He goes on to describe the devastation the family found when it was finally allowed back on the island after the October 1954 storm. Four to 5 feet of sand covered the old Causeway. “There were boats sitting all out in the street. Obviously Wrightsville Beach was hit very hard.” Sand lay everywhere. Johnnie Mercer’s Pier had been totally destroyed along with most of the cottages along the beachfront. “My Dad was responsible for really cleaning up the beach rebuilding the streets ” Robert says proudly. “They put a lot of work into developing and rebuilding what was there.”

Hurricanes weren’t the only source of anxiety in those days. There was a great fear of fire at Wrightsville Beach. According to Robert a fire in the 1930s destroyed much of the beach and the trauma left its mark on the citizens. Jack Parker was a volunteer fireman and Robert grew up with a strong sense of the danger that fire posed to the community. Reminders were frequent since the emergency siren was located on Salisbury Street near where the Parkers lived. Robert remembers counting the siren’s rings — the number of rings indicated where the fire trucks should go.

Robert also recalls the destruction of the Ocean Terrace. Located where the Blockade Runner stands today the Ocean Terrace was an imposing Victorian-style hotel. Opened in 1937 it had been badly damaged during Hurricane Hazel and somehow a fire got started there. “I remember that night the fire was going crazy and all the people were there.” Robert says. “And my Dad and all these firemen were trying to put it out and all of a sudden the whole front of the building collapsed. People were running for their lives.”

Despite these moments of drama Robert Parker remembers his childhood and his parents’ lives with undisguised affection. “They had a lifestyle that very few people will ever see again ” he says wistfully.

As a surfer Robert Parker has traveled the world — Hawaii Tortola Barbados Puerto Rico Australia Costa Rica and Thailand. “I’ve had a very blessed life ” he admits. But his hometown keeps pulling him back. Perhaps the explanation can be found at the extreme southern end of the island where South Lumina Avenue ends at the gazebo. It’s there that you’ll find a marker for the right hand street leg. The marker reads: Jack Parker Boulevard.

It’s not a monument exactly but it serves as a reminder — of a man and a family — who made a difference. “I don’t think there are many families who committed themselves to Wrightsville Beach as much as my mom and dad did ” Robert says.

July 8 of this year marked the 100th anniversary of Jack Parker’s birth. Robert gathers up the photographs pausing to look at the marker with the gazebo behind it. “On July 8th ” he smiles “I think I’ll go down to the gazebo and hang out.”