The Vietnam War was a life-changing experience for many men and women who served in the conflict that was fought between Aug. 4, 1964, and Jan. 27, 1973. A staggering 8.7 million military personnel served during the war and 47,434 died in combat. There were 10,786 other deaths, and 153,303 were wounded in action.

Jack Parker, Menominee, who served in the Marine Corps, was one of those who came home. He was a talented athlete who played football, basketball and baseball, ran the 100-yard and 200-yard sprints, ran a leg on the 100-yard and 200-yard relay teams, and tossed the shot put for the Menominee Maroons.

He was a standout catcher and center fielder for Post 146 American Legion team under Coach Richard “Red” Lacousiere.

A 1963 graduate of Menominee High School, Jack attended Northern Michigan University at Marquette and played football. He was the starting fullback in spring drills, but then dropped out of college for academic reasons and enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was at NMU when Bill Rademacher, one of Menominee’s greatest all-around athletes, was on campus.

“He was my mentor at Northern,” recalled Parker. “He kept telling me to be patient and my playing time would come. He was an inspiration for me because I was thinking about dropping out of college a few times.”

Parker returned to NMU after his hitch in the Marines. He earned a bachelor’s degree in education, which enabled him to pursue a career as a teacher and coach. He taught at Marinette High School, Marinette Catholic Central, Peshtigo and Oconto Falls, and had a lengthy career as a substitute teacher at area school districts.

Despite his athletic skills, Parker remains humble and grateful for his accomplishments in sports. He found Christianity while in Vietnam and credits a military chaplain for pointing him in the direction of his Presbyterian faith 55 years ago. He remains a strong believer in his faith, attending church services and Bible study on a regular basis.

Parker recalls one thrill he had many years ago while still at a young football age. He wanted to attend a free agent tryout camp of the Chicago Bears. He was in California at the time, caught a red-eye flight to Chicago and headed for Soldier Field in the dark of night.

“The camp started at 10 o’clock in the morning and I was dead tired after the red-eye flight from California and I didn’t want to miss the start of camp,” he recounted. “So I went to Soldier Field, found a way to get in and went to sleep at a spot I picked out on the field. Early the next morning a guy comes and wakes me up and asked me what I was doing there. I told him I didn’t want to be late for the camp. He told me to go back to sleep.”

Parker, thinking the mystery man was a security guard or janitor, found out the man was George Hales, head coach of the Bears and one of the founders of the National Football League.

Jack was 27 years old at the time, but his fierce competitiveness demanded he give it a try.

“They told me if I had been five years younger I would have been invited to stay for a tryout,” he recalled, “But I’m glad I gave it a shot.”

Jack, the son of Viola and William “Bill” Parker, was stricken with a crippling illness when he was 55 years old. His mother suffered from osteoclasus, a bone disease, and his father was wrapped in pain from arthritis. Jack contacted Agent Orange while in Vietnam. Between the Agent Orange and the generic ailments of his parents, he was left with his ailment.

“It hit me at age 55,” he explained. “I have no pain. A lot of people with this issue are on pain pills. I’m not. I think God is helping me.”

Parker, who turns 75 years old May 5, uses a walker to move around. He’s able to drive a car. An avid sports fan, he is a regular spectator at high school events, boys and girls, at local high schools.

Perhaps Jack’s most feverish passion is weight-lifting. He’s been doing weights for years and has been a mentor for scores of area high school athletes.

He credits Lacousiere for getting him involved in weights. “He used to keep weights in one of the janitor closets at high school,” Parker conceded. “I would go lift weights every chance I had. When I’d get a pass for study hall I’d head for the janitor’s closet and lift weights.”

Lacousiere, he added, also had weights at the former Father Geynet Hall, which was a part of Menominee Catholic Central Elementary School. Red coached sports at the school. He would invite Parker, a non-Catholic, to come and work out in the weight room. 

Before getting some sophisticated weight-lifting equipment, Parker’s inventory of weights was pretty modest. He would stuff a bunch of books in an old suitcase, place a stick across the suitcase to serve as a bar, and lift weights. His father later crafted some homemade equipment out of cement blocks.

Parker operated a weight-lifting program in the basement of his home at 714 9th Avenue before moving to an assisted living facility five months ago. 

His modest gymnasium — called The Dungeon — included various types of weight-lifting apparatus. The calling card for the special workouts included weight training, weight lifting, power lifting, body building, speed training, isometrics, phyometers and coaching — the latter for football, shotput or “any other sports techniques.”

Parker’s personal career in weight-lifting is impressive: first in the Wisconsin State weight-lifting championships at 242 pounds; first in the Wisconsin YMCA super heavyweight-lifting class (1973); first in the Wisconsin Olympics in the super heavyweight class (1974); third in the power-lifting division in California.

He is especially proud of his second place finish in the national power-lifting championships at Michigan State University, and his third place trophy in power-lifting at Long Beach State in California. He represented UW-Marinette at the Long Beach State event. He recognized Bill Schmidtke, campus administrator at the time, for making it possible for him to compete at Long Beach State.

Parker has collected a suitcase of other trophies, medals and ribbons at various weight-lifting events across the country.

A memorable time for him in his crave for weight-lifting came in 1970 when he witnessed the world weight-lifting championships in Columbus, Ohio, the only time they were held in the United States.

“That really got me hooked on weight-lifting,” he said. “They were so good. The Russians in particular excel in weight-lifting.

“The Vietnam War is what changed me and made me a much better person,” Jack admitted.

Parker’s contributions to God and country, his career in multiple sports programs as an athlete and coach, the days spent in a classroom setting passing his knowledge on to young people, and his profound love for weight-lifting as a competitor and coach-trainer have left him with a fulfilled life. And it all started in a war-stricken country when he discovered Christianity.

This column was penned by Larry Ebsch, former EagleHerald editor and local historian.