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Albany Tech's Parker back in the saddle


August 25, 2012- ALBANY, GA from The Albany Herald- Anthony Parker has the home field advantage when he suggests lunch at the Stonebridge Golf and Country Club dining room.

An avid golfer who's chasing an ever-elusive 80 on the lush course, Parker is a member in good standing who's a fixture on the Stonebridge links. In fact, many regulars who don't know the Albany Technical College president personally are puzzled that he's been MIA for an extended period.

They don't know that the educator who's led Albany Tech for the past 17 years has been undergoing a radical new treatment for the lymphoma that first presented itself in 2005.

But all will be right in the world on Labor Day when Parker and his son Richard play the Stonebridge course for the first time since he started a process that has included extensive chemotherapy and the injection of his own harvested stem cells to rebuild an immune system that fell victim to the cancer.

"I expect I'll hit a wall during our round," Parker said of his doctor-approved return to the course. "But I'll be back out there."

Then Parker smiles — an act that, with his chemo-enduced hairless dome, gives him the appearance of a beatific monk — and repeats himself.

"I'll be back out there."

When Parker was approached about taking part in The Herald's A Table With a View feature, he said what any smart executive would say: "Get in touch with Molly (Walls, Parker's assistant). She'll tell you when I can go."

Walls doesn't hesitate when asked where Parker might want to eat. "He loves Stonebridge," she says.

And so it was, on Aug. 15, as we sat down for the first extensive interview Parker has given since returning to work at Albany Tech.

ALBANY HERALD: So, I take it you come here a lot?

PARKER: Yeah, I'm a member here, been out here for a while. I play out here. I love it.

AH: So you've finally been allowed to go back into the office after your illness. Does that depend on how you feel, or do they limit you?

AP: My doctors asked me to come back to the office part-time, but I guess there's no such thing. The first few days of August I stayed about four hours, then I stayed a little bit longer after a few days. But then I've been to Valdosta for an all-day meeting, so there's no real set hours. I'm enjoying being back, though. It hasn't been overtaxing.

AH: This is not one of those jobs where you can spend an hour here or there, just work for a little while. There are fires you put out constantly. Are you governing yourself as far as how much you work?

AP: Well, you can't say, for example, what you'll have to deal with. But it's the best job in Georgia, and getting back to it was a blessing. I had people looking after things while I was gone, and I really appreciate that. There were no emergencies, no fires or anything like that, but I'm glad to get back. As you can imagine, though, my wife (Sandra) is watching me. She's been, obviously, my encouragement and my caregiver. I realize that the quicker I'm able to satisfy her, the less limitations I'll have in a lot of things.

AH: Going through what you've been through is very private and personal. A lot of people knew you were sick, but they didn't know exactly what health issues you faced. Can you share that experience with us?

AP: Back in 2005 I found out that I had lymphoma. I had standard treatment of chemotherapy and radiation, and it went into remission. But we always knew that if it (came back) we'd have to take the next step, which is a stem cell transplant. Between 2005 and 2012, the technology had advanced to the point where I was a good candidate for what they call an auto transplant, which meant that I could be given a heavy dose of chemotherapy to be put into remission and they would harvest my own stem cells.

When the last round of chemotherapy was completed, they could take my own stem cells and create a new immune system from scratch. I had about nine or 10 days of treatment before they harvested my stem cells, and the last nine or 10 days in the hospital I had treatment every day. On June 20, they gave me my stem cells back, and from that point I started regenerating my own immune system. In early July I was supposed to have to stay in Atlanta for two weeks, but they told me I was doing well enough to go home. I had a doctor at Phoebe (Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany) in place, and they let me go back to work a little earlier than I was supposed to. I had a lot of people thinking about me, praying for me, sending me notes and cards, phone calls. I realized when I came here, I kind of adopted Albany and made it my home. But I didn't know Albany had adopted me. I started hearing from people while I was in the hospital and while I was recovering ... people I have known, people I'd had a lot of contact with and people I'd never heard of.

AH: Where did you get your treatment?

AP: At Emory (University Hospital's Winship Cancer Center).

AH: You deal with training students to use the latest technology at Albany Tech, but the process you went through has to be amazing even to you.

AP: The day that I got my transplant, there were eight other people in line to get transplants that day. They started at 8:30 in the morning and went until 3 that afternoon, so when you get in that system at the Winship Cancer Center, they know from what your temperature is on that given day what to do. It was an amazing experience, but not something I'd recommend to anybody.

AH: We've talked in the past — and I remember bits of our conversation — but remind me how it was that you came to Albany.

AP: I left the Georgia (vocational education) system (in Vidalia) when my father died and my mother was — I thought — in need of some attention, so I went to Aiken, S.C. I'd been there for a while, when (a colleague) told me there might be an opportunity in Albany. He said it could be a good fit. I came in 1995, a year after the flood, when there were probably not 15 houses for sale in the whole town and not many places to rent. I got here, liked Albany Tech, liked the community. I realized that when you looked at Albany and looked at employment opportunities — looked at the size of the town — it was the perfect market. In large cities like Atlanta, you can graduate double the number of students that we do and barely have an impact on the employment market in the community. In very small towns, there are not many employment opportunities; they have to move away to be successful. But in Albany, most of the students have an opportunity to make a contribution. It's the perfect opportunity. And, of course, we've got a lot to offer in health care, education, museums, cultural life. And there's the golf, obviously. In November, December and January, I always call my cousin in Chicago and ask him when's the last time he played golf. I like to tell him it's 55 degrees and I just came off the golf course.

AH: You've been running the show at Albany Tech 17 years now. Have you considered other opportunities in that time?

AP: I've had a few. I've never gone to visit them, but I've had interest from community colleges and other higher institutions. I've had a headhunter or two call. I've also had friends in South Carolina contact me about that system, but there's never been a potential offer that's good enough or better than the situation we have here. The great people I work with at Albany Tech ... they're respected by their peers, willing to work hard, willing to go above and beyond for their students. Why trade that for the unknown? I'll be 60 in January, and I'm in a good place. People aren't trying to run me off, so why leave?

AH: Not so long ago the old "vo-techs" were for people who couldn't get a college education, either for financial or practical reasons. What then has made the vocational education system so vital now?

AP: There was nothing wrong with that early mission. If you look at the type of economic expansion that was going on, we needed people with a good work ethic who were willing to work hard, come every day and learn. And the technical aspects of the jobs were not as complicated as they are now. To help businesses compete and expand now, the workers have to be much more of a technician than they were 25, 30, 40 years ago. Industries are not competing just on work ethic, just on the amount of workers that can come and apply. Those industries are competing based on who can make the highest-quality product at the lowest standard cost. And they're looking for people who can do math and problem-solve and read at a grade 13 or 14 level. So that means we had to evolve. There was nothing wrong with the quote-unquote vocational schools of 20 years ago, but they had to evolve into technical colleges or as a state or region we were going to be left behind

AH: You guys at Albany Tech have an amazing placement record and have become a vital part of the economic engine of our region.

AP: We place 93 percent of our graduates in field and have 98 percent overall placement. And we even left some jobs on the table recently when an employer came to us and we were not able to give them graduates who met their needs. They were in the pipeline but not quite ready. We're an average-size technical college, and we led the state in graduates. That's what I'm most proud of. We were recognized by Community College Times as being among the top 10 producers of occupational graduates in the nation. We were No. 1 in the number of African-American students, and that's not because we were intentionally favoring them but it had to do with our demographics.

AH: Your doctors gave you the OK to play golf again on Sept 3. Tell me a little about your game.

AP: I hit enough golf shots during a round to excite me enough to figure I can come back and get better. At my age and with my game, my ultimate goal is to break 80. I won't get too excited to say I'll ever be a scratch golfer. My son is going to come down (from Atlanta) on Labor Day so he can watch me play my first game — for his mother — and in case I get too peaked or tired.

AH: What did that mean to you during treatment, to think about not being able to play golf? Or were you always confident that you'd be back?

AP: I think I was confident. I've always been an optimist, and at no time did a doctor tell me to go get my affairs in order. So if they were not saying that it looked terminal, I wasn't going to borrow that. My relatives in South Carolina have been wondering if I was going to get to (alma mater) South Carolina State's football games this year, and I sent them an email blast to let them know I ordered my tickets. My wife has said that we may not make it, but I told her she's welcome to ride with me but I plan to be in the stands.

I'm extremely blessed to have the family I have ... a wife of 39 years, three grown children. If things had not worked out as they did, I couldn't say I wasn't blessed in the 59 years I'd had up to that point. Certainly I have had a great life and expect a lot more time, but I was not borrowing the worst-case scenario. The doctors who do this for a living said expect to get better, and I am not going to plan to get worse.

AH: What was the hardest thing about going through that ordeal?

AP: Being in a hospital room for 24 straight days. I have no idea how I survived that. I brought every DVD I own with me. (Cable provider) Comcast in Atlanta couldn't get "Perry Mason," and that's one of my favorite shows in the middle of the day.

AH: As you look forward, are you making any plans, re-evaluating, taking stock, or thinking about things you want to do in your life?

AP: There are three or four things I've always wanted to do. I want to rent a Mustang convertible and drive down California 1 from one end of the state to the other. I want to have a camera with me and just stop and take pictures and go to the Laundromat when I need clean clothes and just have a good time doing that. I've been out to California and been on California 1, but driving the length of the state has been on my bucket list since I was about 22.

My youngest daughter (Andrea) and I at some point are going to walk the battlefield at Gettysburg. We wanted to go this summer, but obviously we couldn't. But we're going to get to that. My son and I are going to play some more golf, and I'm going to go out to Texas and spend some more time with my daughter who is a college professor (Kimberly) and teaches out there. I've lived well and spent a lot of time with my wife and my children. They grew up too fast, but it's not that I don't think I spent an appropriate amount of time watching them.

AH: And then there's breaking 80 in golf.

AP: (laughs) Yes, there's that.

AH: What other things will you do?

AP: I'll probably visit friends when I go home and go to football games. I'll enjoy my family and my wife's family. I have some friends I meet in Alabama, and we play some golf, go over to Augusta to play there. I want to do more with my wife, but we do have different interests. I've bought her clubs and paid for lessons, but she's not interested. But she believes most of my friends and I are harmless, so if we want to get together and play golf, that's OK with her.

AH: Have you gotten any comments from students about your "new look"? Are there any real issues you're having to deal with now?

AP: The fact that my hair hasn't grown back is about the only issue that I'm still dealing with. I can't go to the gym yet, but I'm walking and doing some weights and things at the house. I don't feel the lack of energy I felt when I first got out of the hospital. My doctor told me "naps are your friend," and I nap. I always feel a need to be doing something productive, but since I've gotten home I'd find myself watching a "Perry Mason" or "Heat of the Night" that I had TiVoed and I'd wake up and find that it was over and I'd have to rewind it back to the middle. Gradually, though, things have gotten better. My children have been very supportive and protective. I had to tell my daughters that I had not passed to the point where they could seek power of attorney to run my life yet.

— Waitress Stephanie Hunt comes by to take our lunch order. We both order Tavern Burgers, medium-well, with fries. (Note to doctor: Parker asked that no salt be put on his fries.) Parker orders sweet tea, me a Coke. —

AH: Why is this one of your favorite places to eat?

AP: The food is great. The Sunday brunch — Wow! — is second to none, and they have a prime rib on Sunday that I don't know how they prepare it, but it is probably the best that I have ever eaten. We do a lot of college events out here, and they take care of us. Sandra and I enjoy being out here. The golf course is challenging. I play members at the other courses in town from time to time, but I have no regrets about being a member here.

AH: You mentioned earlier that the people of Albany were good to you during your treatment. Who are some of the folks who became part of your support group?

AP: I hate to start mentioning names, but (former Albany) Mayor (Willie) Adams, our current mayor (Dorothy Hubbard), Congressman (Sanford) Bishop, the pastors from Sherwood, Mt. Zion and Bethel (Baptist churches), members with me on the SB&T and Phoebe boards ... I got piles of cards and letters from people all over the community, it was just overwhelming. I hate to leave anyone out, but the people here were amazing.

AH: Was the whole experience kind of reaffirming for you?

AP: Yes. I'm an optimist, and I believe that most people are good and they've got your well-being in mind. There are a few people who don't, but I'd rather let them expose themselves and deal with them accordingly. As a relative newcomer to Albany, I just haven't experienced a lot of issues that I didn't feel couldn't be addressed. I've tried to put myself in a position where if someone and I had an issue that we didn't understand, we could talk about it. They can call me or come see me; my telephone number is in the phone book, and you can get me at Albany Tech. I try to make myself available. I've found that if you're open and honest that way, people will respond. They may not change, but they'll at least know what you think.

See the original story at ALBANY HERALD

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