BEECHGROVE, Tenn. — Ninety-year old Beechgrove resident Dudley Parker has a lifetime of stories to tell – and they start from the time of his birth.
Born in jail
Parker was born in the Moore County Jail. At least, he said, “That’s what Mama always told me. Of course, I don’t hardly remember it, you know.”
He can’t tell you what year he was born, either, because his original birth certificate was burned in a house fire.
His mother tells him he was born in 1926, but fellow Beechgrove resident June Fann, who is researching Parker’s life, disagrees.
Fann grew up hearing Dudley Parker stories from her grandmother and is now collecting them into a book. She says she’s sent off for a replacement birth certificate, but until they know for sure, she believes that Parker was actually born in 1925.
Parker concedes that’s possible his mother added the year. His sister Charlotte Parker Crowell was born late September of 1924. A 1925 baby would have come hot on her heels. “Mama thought I was too close to my sister. She was ashamed.”
Parker’s not even entirely sure how his pregnant mother ended up in the jailhouse.
“My mama was pure Irish and had a temper like a snake. She never would want to talk about it.”
However, where mother Thelma Alice kept a tight lip, father Bud Lee eventually shared a few words on the subject.
They had been on the way to Thelma’s parents’ house when “something happened with the car, I don’t know what it was,” said Parker. That something involved then-Sheriff Alvis Bean. And it lead Thelma Alice to smack him. And so, to jail she went.
“Daddy finally did tell me he was running Grandpa some whiskey,” said Parker. “Grandpa’s brother made real good whiskey in Cannon County.”
Parker doesn’t know how long Thelma Alice was in the hoosegow before giving birth but, he said, Sheriff Bean wanted to move her out of the jail and to her parent’s house as quickly as possible when birth was imminent.
Unfortunately, the creek that separated the Newt Cathey house from the jail was swollen and they couldn’t move her quickly enough.
Shortly after Parker’s birth, Thelma Alice and child were moved out of the jail to a nearby house.
They went home to Beechgrove soon after that.
In Beechgrove, Bud Lee Parker operated a mechanic’s garage.
“I started helping him when I was less than 10 years old,” said Parker. “He told me and my brother, ‘If you know how to do something, you do it and do it right. If you don’t know how to do it, you be damned sure you got enough decency to tell a man you don’t know how to do it.’ That’s the way I was raised.”
Parker’s Garage was located on Highway 41, the only road at the time to connect Chicago to Miami.
“I’ve dealt with every kind of people in the world,” said Parker. “If they went to Florida, the only way to go was that way round.”
Sometime around Dec. 1933, he said, “This big ol’ car stopped. I’d never seen a car like it.”
Parker described a car with thick upholstery, “big wide wheels on the front fender,” “a big trunk on the back” and a mahogany steering wheel.
The car brought “three guys dressed nice. Suits and ties,” said Parker. “One guy got out and stayed outside my daddy’s shop and just walked around. The other guy, every time daddy would go in the garage, he would go, too.”
But the third well-dressed man never got out of the car.
Parker didn’t know who was sitting inside, but he did know he had to see that car up close.
“I got a curiosity that would kill anything.”
When Parker walked up to take a closer look, the well-dressed man sitting inside asked the boy, then aged 8, to get them a couple of drinks.
He said, “Go get us two and I’ll buy you one,” said Parker.
So Parker grabbed the drinks and crawled into the back of the car, where American gangster John Dillinger had a pulled a seat down from the front for him.
“Of course we didn’t know it was John Dillinger, you understand.”
Given the timing and description, the car was most likely the 1932 Studebaker Commander that two months earlier had been used as the getaway car during the Central National Bank robbery in Greencastle, Ind. That robbery netted the Dillinger gang $75,000.
“We was sitting there talking and I looked down in the floorboard. There’s a thing that looked like it’s a fiddle case. I said ‘I know somebody plays the fiddle,’ so I jumped down off the seat and opened it.”
Seeing what was inside, he said, “That don’t look like no fiddle that I seen.” Then, he said, Dillinger “took his foot and shut it up.”
What Parker had seen was a Thompson submachine gun – one which Dillinger would have acquired only about two months earlier.
The Dillinger gang picked up a Thompson during their raid of the Auburn, Ind., police station on Oct. 14, 1933. They gathered another two in the Oct. 21 robbing of the Peru, Ind., police station arsenal. The guns made their debut at the Oct. 23 Greencastle robbery where three officers were killed.
“Anyway, nicest people you ever saw,” said Parker.
After working on the car for about two hours, Bud Lee told his customers that they would make it to Florida as long as they didn’t drive over 40 mph.
Dillinger then paid for his $7 repair with a $50 bill. When Bud Lee told him that he could not break so large a bill, Dillinger said, ‘You keep it, buddy, you don’t have to break it.”
Parker marveled at the retelling. “In the depression, when you worked all day for 50 cents, he said, ‘you don’t have to break it, you keep it.”
“What he said about my father I’ll never forget if I live to be a thousand,” said Parker, beaming with pride at the memory. “He said, ‘Buddy, tell you what, you’re not only a good mechanic, you’re the first honest man I’ve met in a long time’.” He paused. “John Dillinger said that to my father.”
Within the week, the FBI was in Beechgrove checking out the garage. Bud Lee remained silent when shown pictures of the man who had paid him handsomely, but his son did not. When the agents left, Parker said, “He busted my butt, simple as that.”
Seven months later, in July 1934, Dillinger met his end at the hands of Chicago police and federal agents as he exited the city’s Biograph Theater.
The Studebaker that Parker crawled into, however, is now housed in the Historic Auto Museum in Roscoe, Ill.
Just two years later, in the summer of 1936, Parker said, “A guy run me over on purpose when I was 10 years old. Knocked me off the bridge.”
The driver was upset with Parker’s paternal grandfather, so when he saw Grandpa Parker crossing the then barrier-free bridge over Garrison Creek, he turned his concrete power buggy toward him.
“I remember Grandpa said, ‘here comes that sonofabitch’,” said Parker.
But instead of hitting Grandpa, the buggy hit Parker. He fell roughly 20 feet into the creek below and never walked again.
Parker describes his time in a Murfreesboro hospital after the fall as “a living hell.”
There were no intensive care units at that time, he said. He was put in the hospital basement next to the furnace, where he developed a fever. The doctors said he’d be lucky to make it through the night.
To address his injury, the doctors inserted a large needle into Parker’s back. “Godamighty,” he said, finding no better word to express the considerable pain. “From that night, my legs got to feeling funny. I never moved them no more.”
Parker’s first wheelchair was a wagon he hooked up to a goat named Charlie. That “worked pretty good for a while,” he said, “until buddies would shoot [the goat] with a BB gun.”
After that, Parker started to build his own wheelchairs, drawing on his experience helping his father around the garage. He made his first model out of tricycles and bike parts.
“Wheelchairs back then were big, old wood things. I couldn’t use ‘em, so I made one to fit me.”
Ask Parker who his favorite president is and he’ll tell you “I really like Lincoln. That FDR was arrogant.”
It’s an opinion that, at least with regard to FDR, Parker formed first hand.
“I knew him,” he said. “Me and him was big buddies.”
At age 12, Parker was sent to seek therapy for his legs in a Georgia spa town known for its therapeutic mineral springs. In Warm Springs, Parker met President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
FDR had contracted polio in 1921 at age 39. Hoping to find a cure for his paralysis in the town’s 88-degree waters, he visited Warm Springs for the first time in 1924. Though he found no cure, he found that the waters did ease his pain.
FDR would continue visiting Warm Springs until his death in 1945, by which time he’d bought the resort, built the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation (a treatment center for polio victims) and ordered a six-room Georgia pine house – the “Little White House” — built on the property.
Roosevelt visited Warm Springs 40 times during his presidency, including the time of Parker’s 1938 visit.
Parker said he got to know the President during his stay.
“I rode around in that car. He could drive a little bit. He had hand controls on the car, a 30-something Ford. It had controls on it and he’d crawl up in there,” said Parker. “His car was open, you see, like a roadster. He liked me and we’d ride around some.”
FDR died in office seven years later after suffering a stroke in April of 1945.
The Little White House is now a registered Historic Site that sees 100,000 visitors a year.
The 1938 Ford convertible equipped with hand controls that Parker rode in is exhibited there.
“This is a beautiful world,” said Parker. “I cannot understand why people can’t be happy.”
“Like old Kennedy said, don’t ask what the country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. This country don’t own you nothin’. It’s here if you want to work and get it. Simple as that. Anything you want. Anything you can think of.”
It’s a powerful statement from a man who’s spent most of his life in a wheelchair.
“Let me tell you something,” he said. “I’m the most independent guy you ever seen. I can do anything I want to. I have not stood up even one time or took one step in 80 years, but it didn’t keep me down, baby. I’m still working today.
“I had six of the finest kids you ever saw, four boys and two girls. I done buried three of them. You can do anything if you try.”
Those kids grew up to give Parker nine grandchildren – eight boys and one girl.
About spending 80 years in a wheelchair, Parker said, “There’s one good thing about it,” then paused for effect. “Look at how much shoe leather I’ve saved.”
—By KELLY LAPCZYNSKI, Tullahoma News Staff Writer
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