Chester Martin Remembers His Father-In-Law, John E. Parnell Sr.

Thursday, June 2, 2016 - by Chester Martin
 John E. Parnell Sr.
John E. Parnell Sr.

John Elzie Parnell was a really super father-in-law and I miss him almost as much as my own father. He was left a widower for more years than he deserved, but that is how life works sometimes. He was always very even-tempered, and I never personally saw him angry. He was a family man from infancy forward, having virtually never known his mother. He was raised in the warm cocoon of loving family members, "adopted", by an older sister, Jewell, who raised him in the family home. His father re-married and the new wife also accepted Johnie as though he were her own son.

"Johnie" (as they spelled it in his family) had several older siblings besides Jewell, and all became successful contributors to their own respective worlds.

They had a strong church-centered up-bringing that kept them on the "straight and narrow" path...

But times in Alabama and the entire U.S. were not the best, as it was the Depression era. Even so, Johnie was "upwardly moblle", doing well in school with his goal set on the University of Alabama, from which he received a degree in engineering. He made many friends while at Tuscaloosa, some of whom became friends for life.

After Graduation he soon married Elizabeth Heacock of Talladega who came from an old family which traced back to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Her uncle, Dr. Joe Heacock, was a long-time, and well-known, physician in Birmingham, living to be 104 years of age or thereabouts.

Johnie now had a new wife and an engineering degree - but no local jobs were open for the family-loving Johnie. He was therefore practically forced to take a job in eastern North Carolina, "on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp" - and that is where my wife, Patricia (Pat) and twin brother, Jerry, were born. Their first child, John Jr., had been born at Anniston, before leaving Alabama for North Carolina. Johnie fell in love with the eastern part of that state, enjoying his job which involved making frequent boat trips onto Albemarle Sound to record depth-readings. Here he remained for several years. But it was now war-time and there was a better-paying government job open in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to which place he moved his family.

Oak Ridge was, of course, one of several places in the country where the first atomic bomb was cobbled together. Secrecy was extremely tight, and the workers had zero knowledge of what they were actually working on, or how their work fit into an overall project. I am certain that Johnie did his job well, while not caring for the pervasive aura of extreme secrecy. He was yearning to be closer to his roots in Alabama all the while and kept one ear open for any "lead" that would get him closer to home. Work at Oak Ridge concluded when the first atomic bomb was dropped in 1945 and Johnie was out of work. He applied to a large paper mill at Crossett, Arkansas, where the family moved again - this time with two new twin boys in tow - Ronald and Donald.

The years spent at Crossett were probably the happiest to date for the Parnell family. His family was complete now, they thought - except that the youngest child, a daughter, Dana, had not yet arrived. (Dana was born years later in Chattanooga but heard so much talk about the family's time in Crossett that she actually believed as a child that she had been there with them!)  I have personally gotten to visit each place that the Parnell family lived, and found Crossett to have a definite charm to it - despite its being a"company town". Crossett Paper Company was later acquired by Georgia-Pacific Corporation. My wife still has one good friend from her Crossett days , but now in California, who remains in touch.         

Johnie got wind of a new DuPont plant opening in Chattanooga, however, and put in his application. A job in Chattanooga would bring him closer yet to his Alabama family. He was still young enough that he could work a full retirement if he moved soon again. So in 1952 he was accepted here at DuPont in Chattanooga. Due to school considerations he came alone to Chattanooga, finding a large house on Redding Road in Red Bank; it could accommodate the entire household, and was near both schools and public transportation. He wrote back to Crossett in glowing terms about it, as It could not have suited better. When both Elizabeth and Johnie died - and all the children had gone - two gentlemen purchased the property and made a "show place" out of it.

Johnie and Elizabeth enjoyed many years of family ties with their Alabama kin: the brothers and sisters who had nurtured Johnie along as a half-orphan, starting him on the successful path he followed throughout life. The dear sister who considered him her special charge - my wife's Aunt Jewell - never ceased to love him and look over him. It is true that she - already in her nineties - refused to die until Johnie had gone first.

Aunt Jewell P. Lee was a long-time dedicated and much-loved teacher at the Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind at Talladega. Her husband died very young and she never re-married to leave children. Johnie had been her one and only "little boy".

Besides Johnie's actual brothers and sisters he also had half-brothers and sisters. All were equal in importance to him, and he made no distinctions among them. His job at DuPont included daily rounds throughout the entire plant so that he came to know a great many of his co-workers by name - and through his church it was the same. He could rarely leave home without greeting or being greeted by friends and acquaintances. One special friend from DuPont who shared his interest in amateur photography was Zygmunt ("Zig") Zimny. Mr. Zimny played a major role of assistance in helping Johnie move about in later life.

John Parnell, Sr., was a generous man who never forgot birthdays, Valentines, Easters, etc, and sent more greeting cards and small gifts for all occasions than any man I have ever known. He had beautiful calligraphic handwriting and a kind word for everyone. He also had a keen interest in family history, finding Chattanooga an excellent place in which to advance those researches.

Where would I be today if he had not brought his family, including my future wife, Pat Parnell, to Chattanooga?

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )



Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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