The Way We Worked

February 26th, 2013 at 11:10 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

Tom Parker (photo by Dave Leiker)


“I saw unspeakable things done to cattle, and I lived through things I didn’t know I would,” Tom Parker said with a smile as he told me about his year-long photography project.

Over the past year, Tom Parker immersed himself in his own community of Blue Rapids to create a photography exhibit called “The Way We Worked.” The project, in partnership with the Smithsonian, received principal funding from the Kansas Humanities Council. The Blue Rapids Historical Society and the Marshall County Arts Cooperative provided additional funding.

Sixteen communities across the state were partner sites for the Smithsonian project, many of them using historical photos to tell the story of Kansas workers. Parker, however, chose to capture the present-day worker in Blue Rapids.

Parker is a friend of ours and on a recent Saturday, Dave and I took the two-hour drive to view the display of 80 photographs at the Blue Rapids Museum. These 80 pictures are just a small portion of the project. Parker has also put together a book on CD which includes 560 photographs.

The photographs tell the story of Blue Rapids, but it could be any small Kansas town because the pictures of workers and volunteers in that community tell our stories too. The pictures show everyday people doing everyday jobs.

One photo caught the sparks of a welder at Titan Trailer Manufacturing; another showed a tornado drill in progress at Blue Valley Senior Living. There is a picture showing a bank employee using a machine to count coins that she emptied from a bunny-shaped piggy bank.

For one photo taken from the top of the elevator, Parker said he was standing on a plastic bucket and was leaning too far out the window. He hoped the bucket would hold and not send him plummeting 110 feet to the ground. He said, “My thought was ‘If you fall out of the window, keep the shutter going until you hit.’”

At the Prairie Valley Vet Clinic, Parker watched a vet prepare a large dog for surgery. “The room was very small,” he said. “In the photo it looks like I’m a long way away, but I was eight inches from it. The vet had the scalpel ready and then she stopped. And she asked me, ‘Are you squeamish?’”

He received permission from families to photograph funerals, telling them he’d only do as much as they were comfortable with. A particularly striking photo is of a casket being pulled from the hearse at a cemetery. One of the six pallbearers is a young woman wearing a black dress. “She just adds everything to that picture,” he said.

At the Blue Rapids Swimming Pool, kids are buying pickles from a gallon jar at the concession counter. “I learned the importance of pickles,” Parker said. “They are a huge thing at the swimming pool.”

In 2012, a new bridge was constructed over the Big Blue River and the old bridge was imploded. He photographed guys from Chicago Explosive Services preparing equipment for the blast. During the explosion he shot 81 frames in 10 seconds.

Parker photographed an employee on a step ladder, filling the pop dispenser with ice at the Route 77 Corner Store, and one of a school bus driver letting kids on the bus. Photos include those of farmers and pharmacists, sanitation workers, clergy, postal workers, a police officer with his radar gun. He photographed the construction process of the Ice Age monument in the town square (which is actually the town circle).

While viewing the photographs as a whole, a strong sense of a community came through. I realized how these people, how all of us, are just doing our own jobs. But the photos show that it’s also bigger than that; we are each a piece in the same puzzle, each of us has a role, a contribution for the good of all.

Tom Parker’s work, his contribution to Blue Rapids and to all of us, is his fantastic talent. His photographs are worth studying for the art, for the story, and for the historical record they provide.

This exhibit will be on display through March 16. The Blue Rapids Museum is open Saturdays, 9 a.m. – noon, and 1-4 p.m., or you can call 785-363-7228 for an appointment.

To purchase the CD of photographs, call the number above, or send an email to Tom Parker at The CD is $35.34 with tax and shipping.

Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh

Art, columns, Kansans, life on the ground, other people's stuff, small towns

  1. February 26th, 2013 at 12:45 | #1

    You and Tom are both Kansas treasures.

  2. elebrown
    February 26th, 2013 at 17:20 | #2

    I agree. Your work is valuable history!

  3. February 26th, 2013 at 22:20 | #3

    I also agree. Tom’s writings, photographs, wry sense of humor, and the wonderful supportive relationship that he and Lori have is a huge gift to Kansas and the way we live and create our future!

  4. March 23rd, 2013 at 09:03 | #4

    Adding my two-cents: You and Tom and two Kansas treasures. This is a very nice article about Tom and his photo project, Cheryl!