Remembering Tom Parsons

Today I found myself thinking about my 2nd year Comparative Anatomy professor, from back when I was a clueless undergrad in the late 1980s at the University of Toronto.  After some help from folks on Twitter, I figured out that his name was Dr Tom Parsons. I was saddened but unsurprised to learn that Dr Parsons had passed away at the age of 80 in 2011.

According to his obituary, he had moved to Cape May, NJ, when he retired in 1992. I was still at the university then, pursuing a Masters degree concurrently with a B.Ed. But I was so caught up in my own nonsense that I didn’t take note of Dr Parsons’s retirement.

Tom Parsons left an impression on me for a number of reasons. First, I found his class quite difficult. He had high standards which I struggled to meet. And yet I remember much of what he taught me. Hard teachers who hold the line of paedagogical quality end up having a much deeper impact than those who coddle their students.

Second, Dr Parsons had a strange habit of introducing his students to life beyond the classroom. Every couple of weeks, he would offer two lucky students the opportunity to attend the opera with him. Many of us were confused by the offer and just shrugged it off. But there would always be a couple of adventurous souls who would take him up on it. I never did, and I regret it.

Looking back, I can see how he was ushering generations of “kids” (young adults) into social strata we would not have otherwise sampled. That lesson has resonated with me for decades.

Beyond the opera, Dr Parsons was a great lover of the outdoors. Every weekend, he would trek through the local swamps looking for birds. And he would invite students to join him. I did take him up on this offer, though!

It’s a story I tell often, as it really highlights how much I was out of my depth back then. I didn’t even know Toronto had swamps. It was a chilly Saturday, and I struggled to see the birds that he was pointing out. And it was cold.

At one point, he led us through a hole in a fence onto private property. There was some rubble lying about there, and a crowd of birders waiting silently about it. Apparently, a very rare bird had been seen nesting within that rubble, and all of these people were waiting respectfully for its appearance.

I became bored at this point and waved at my friend, who was standing at the far end of the rubble, so that we might plan our escape. The birders saw me wave, and one of them whispered loudly, “He sees it! He sees it!” And they all rushed to my location. Needless to say, they were not pleased to learn that I, in fact, had seen nothing.

After some time, the local police arrived, having been informed of our trespass. Dr Parsons explained to them that we were all waiting to see this very special bird. The cop said, “Well you’re going to have to leave. Want me to honk the car horn and scare the bird out?”  This was met with horrified gaping stares from the assembled birders.

I’ll never forget how much affection I suddenly felt for their passion. They loved their birds, did not wish to disturb or harm them, only to see them. It reminds me of a line from the TV show Dr Who, of all things. The Doctor, chastising that week’s villain, said something to the effect, “Why do you want to own the universe? Isn’t it enough that you get to visit it?”

Later in that expedition, I was feeling a lot of pressure to sound smart, or at least to sound engaged, to this man I found intimidating. So I pointed out a nest in a tree and asked, “What kind of bird makes that nest, sir?”

He stopped in his tracks turned to face me and fixed me with a stare that I can only describe as equal parts perplexed and disappointed. “Squirrels,” he said, then turned around and continued trekking. I didn’t ask another question.

We ended the day back at Dr Parson’s house, where his wife Peg (who people on Twitter have informed me was actually an accomplished scientist in her own right) had prepared two giant vats of pasta sauce: one vegetarian and the other seafood based. For some reason, that food has stuck with me decades later. I was so moved by the gesture. These two clearly did not have children of their own. Instead, they doted on multiple generations of undergraduate students, most of whom (like me) were completely unschooled in matters of birdwatching, opera, or even various types of pasta sauce.

According to Dr Parson’s obituary, Peg died in 2007.

Dr Parson’s class involved the dissection of a variety of animals, the most traumatizing of which were cats. I believe we got their cat corpses from the local pound, where strays were regularly euthanized. We treated their bodies rather matter-of-factly. It was surprising to see Dr Parsons at home, where he doted upon his own cats with almost theatrically parental zeal.

His “bell ringer” final exam lingers with me still, 35 years later. The door opens to reveal a very large room filled with dead animals of all variety. In each of their bodies is placed a pin. Our task was to identify the thing the pin is stuck into. The theory was that by dissecting and studying three animals (a cat, a shark, and another whose identity escapes me), we should be able to identify everything on every animal. Ever the lover of dick jokes, I for one will never forget the baculum, or penis bone, which is found only in some animals.

I got a “C” in Dr Parson’s class. Not for lack of effort. The material was not of a nature that I could easily master. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from him, and not just about comparative anatomy. I learned what a professor could be. And thus I always wanted to be a professor like him, to show my own students things that they ordinarily would not get to see.

For my first few years as a professor, I made sure to take my students to high tea, on historic walking tours, to political debates, and to social events in various embassies. I wanted to expose them to social strata that their own socioeconomics might not have allowed. I had been a poor kid, and generous people like Dr Parsons had taken it upon themselves to show me a world that poor kids don’t get to see. I insisted on doing the same for others.

But things have changed in the last few years. I no longer have the time, the financial capacity, or the energy to be so generous with my world. More to the point, the world now discourages people like professors from extending ourselves into our students’ lives past the administrative line drawn by the teacher-student dynamic. Human Resources frowns upon it, and I can understand why.

In his obituary, it is said that “the greatest tribute anybody could pay to Tom is to just go outside and take a walk.” I will do just that tomorrow. And I will think about many things, including the fact that when I knew Tom Parsons, he was exactly the age that I am today.  Yes, I did the math.

Rest in peace, Professor Parsons, and know that you had an impact.