This past week, the Viking Update family suffered a loss that will leave a void. Longtime VU staple Tony Parker passed away after years of declining health. He was covering Minnesota sports before the Vikings were even a concept for the Upper Midwest. He was there for the inaugural season and didn't stop covering the team until five years ago.
What made Tony good at his craft, covering sports for KMSP-TV for 30 years and being involved in the Twin Cities media in other capacities for 20 more, was his believability. He had "the look" in the pre-hot comb era of TV news personalities. He was Italian – his real name was Anthony Olivetto. In the mid-50s, a name like that brought up images of a Mafiosi. Come to think of it, it still does. The station manager who first hired him told him he had to lose the Italian surname. TV in the ‘50s was still akin to Ellis Island. "Your name is Parker. Get out there." The rest was history.
Depending on how old you are, your recollection of Tony is different. Some remember the Channel 9 guy who did commercial spots with Bob Lurtsema and Lou Nanne and delivered the sports news. Some remember him as the guy doing the interviews at the state tournament games – he lamented about why anyone was interested in what an interview with the head cheerleader's mom brought to the broadcast. Some of you may remember him as the voice on the other end of the Viking Update "900" number – a once-profitable media form that suffered a quick death with the recent advancements in technology.
He was a pro's pro in the sports media business in the Twin Cities. He had a certain "cool factor" – the kind that made Dean Martin a star. Women liked his look and men could see themselves having a drink with him and talking sports. But what made Tony stand out was the part of his life few people ever saw.
By the time I met Tony 20 years ago, he was easing his way into retirement. He was still working – every time he thought he was out, something pulled him back in (the curse of Italians). He was hired to teach a sports communication class at St. Cloud State. He taught budding newspaper writers, radio broadcasters, TV reporters, sports information students and public relations hopefuls. When I saw he was teaching a class, I signed up immediately. I wanted to learn from a veteran.
It was only years later that I discovered I made a dismal first impression. He insisted, despite my protests to the contrary, that the first time he saw me in class, I was wearing a bandana, a big earring and an eye patch. I told him as recently as two months ago that I would take a polygraph test denying I wore that and pass – I've never worn an eye-patch for show. He thought I was a precursor to Jack Sparrow, but, after claiming to be stunned that the guy he gave the best grade in the class on the first assignment to was "that guy," our relationship flourished.
He opened each class to questions and answers and I would ask him to give us the skinny about the local Twin Cities media. He said those stories were for after class, after teasing us by saying female TV anchor Diana Pierce "couldn't carry Pat Miles' strap" (presumably a bra strap). Not one to be shy, I told him that a lot of students would go to a downtown bar after class for the Long Island Tea special. No blaring music, just reasonably priced alcohol-laden drinks. He declined at first, but I persisted. The next week, he relented – "I could use a cup of coffee for the drive home." Within two weeks, he would start class by saying things like, "If we run through this, we should be finished up by 8:30 and can head down to D.B.'s." Although he was in his sixties and we were scratching the surface of our twenties, Tony bonded with us and was always willing to give us realistic advice about the behind-the-scenes world of the media.
Fortunately, Tony especially took a shine to me. When a position opened at VU, Tony insisted that Lurts hire me. He told me to clean up and come down to interview with Bob. I was nervous because I was one of the few football fans knowledgeable enough to remember Lurts as a player, not a pitchman. Tony had talked me up and I didn't want to let him down. He was my Bundini Brown, telling me everything would be fine and don't necessarily be myself. Work with it.
The next five minutes were among the worst of my young life. Instead of the affable Lurts I thought I knew, he spent the first three minutes of what passed for my job interview telling me what I could do to get myself fired. Our meeting wasn't important enough to warrant Bob saying "Hold my calls" when we went into his office. I found that out when the next two minutes were spent with Bob talking on the phone. Sensing my confusion as to why he would take a call at that time, he gave me a dismissive wave to get out of his office.
I walked out and Tony was waiting for me. "How'd it go?" he asked.
"I never knew Bob was such a jerk," I said.
"What?" That was all Tony said. We sat down until Bob emerged from his office. I didn't go back in immediately. Tony did and closed the door behind him. When I went in, I was told I had the job. From that point on, Bob wasn't a jerk to me.
That was the kind of person Tony was. He would go to bat for you if he thought he could help you – personally or professionally. He never wavered on that. He was a rarity. Many of the other veteran media types I had read or listened to or watched growing up shattered my impressions of them pretty quickly. I tried to make a point of introducing myself to them and telling them that I enjoyed their work. More times than not, they seemed more annoyed than flattered and barely broke stride to acknowledge that we were having a conversation. I was a bit put off by it but, thanks to the Metrodome press box seating chart, I was the luckiest guy in the press corps. I sat between Tony and Steve Cannon, two of the nicest, most genuine media types I ever met. Yeah, I was their coffee boy, but I did it willingly and gladly. They deserved the respect.
Tony was always protective and supportive of his students at SCSU and thought of them like a benevolent uncle would try to open doors for nieces and nephews. It didn't take long to see why he was the way he was. By the time I met his wife – her given name was Phyllis, but everyone called her "Paul" – they had been married almost 50 years. They were teenaged sweethearts and she was a stunner – Tony was a man who knew what he liked and did what was needed. Almost 50 years later, they were still as much in love as they were when he was defending our country during World War II and just hoping to make it back to marry Paul. They raised four daughters and, by the time they were able to enjoy their retirement years, they were still best friends and still had that special gleam in their eyes when they would share a glance. They found the person they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with and they did.
When Paul died in September 2008, it hit Tony hard. At the funeral, I was told that he was holding up well, but was heartbroken. Frail from his own ill health, he was seated on a chair greeting the mourners. He was doing the job the patriarch of the family does, despite his own grief. I got in line and promised myself I wouldn't get emotional. When he saw me, he gave me a tight hug. When I backed up, we were both crying like schoolgirls. When I had lost both my parents over the previous few years, Tony and Paul took it upon themselves to serve as surrogate grandparents and send Christmas presents to my girls so that void would be filled. We had a lot of water under the bridge by then and, the longer I knew Tony, the more I appreciated the purity of his kindness. We had no blood relation, but we were family.
After Paul passed away, Tony withdrew a lot. He turned down offers from the Vikings P.R. staff to come sit in the press box for a game and getting him to commit to a lunch date when I was working at Winter Park often took persistence to happen. A lot of his heart was buried with Paul in 2008. He was still here in body, but his spirit was splitting time.
For those who didn't know Tony, you missed out on a one-in-a-million person. For those who did know Tony, they will echo that sentiment. We will say our final goodbyes to Tony on Wednesday, but he will never be forgotten. There will be tears and shared stories, but there is one bit of good news. I can only imagine somewhere in heaven, after a little less than two years apart, a door opened last Thursday and Tony said, "Honey, I'm home."
Rest in peace, Tony. You will be missed.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Tony Parker signs off
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