Community Columns

Legendary principal Tom Parker turned around Turlock High

Tom Parker in front of Turlock High School changed the culture when he took over in 1979. He retired in 1997, leaving a legacy of discipline, love of learning and having fun.
Tom Parker in front of Turlock High School changed the culture when he took over in 1979. He retired in 1997, leaving a legacy of discipline, love of learning and having fun. The Modesto Bee

In 1978, Turlock High School was a tough place – for teachers, students and even the police officers who visited occasionally. Tom Parker changed all that.

Tom became principal of Turlock High in 1979 and stayed through 1997. In those 18 years, he became a legend as he changed the culture of the school and the entire Turlock Unified School District. Tom died April 29.

Tom began his career as a teacher and football coach at Berkeley High School, later becoming principal. He developed a reputation as a take-charge administrator. And he needed all his skills when he arrived at THS.

A memorial service for Tom Parker will be at noon, June 24, in the dining room at Stanislaus State. Donations in his memory can be made to the Tom Parker Memorial Scholarship Fund at Turlock High School.

The campus was in disarray. Discipline was lacking, truancy and tardiness were out of control, and several faculty members were considering resigning. Turlock police officers disliked coming onto campus because of the catcalls they so often heard.

Tom established a zero-tolerance policy for violence, drugs and defiance. Students who cut classes or who were excessively tardy made up the time after school or doing campus clean-up. Police officers enjoyed coming to campus, sometimes having lunch with students and staff. Tom ensured a safe environment for teaching and learning.

Morale improved almost overnight, for staff and students.

Strict discipline was only part of the process. He reached out and got to know students. He liked them and they liked him. Most of all, he wanted them to learn, grow and have as much fun as possible.

He developed an inter-agency task force where several municipal, county and private agencies cooperated to improve services for “at-risk” students. Grants were obtained to combat drop-outs, delinquency and drugs.

Tom recognized strengths in staff members and assigned them to areas where those strengths could come out; then he fully supported them as they developed programs that worked. He brought out the best in people, empowering them to succeed.

Tom would often sit quietly in meetings until the exact right moment. Then he would stand and emphatically announce the solution. It was amazing how quickly he could win the support and cooperation of his audiences. People began calling him “Duke” because of his similarities to John Wayne.

Tom avoided taking credit for accomplishments, preferring to praise staff for their contributions.

Outstanding university preparatory and career education curricula were developed. He believed in having fun and did all he could to make it fun for staff and students.

He was probably the smartest and best-read person we ever met. You could have a highly intellectual conversation with him on any topic.

He was tough, to be sure, but he developed close working relationships with just about everyone. Staff liked and respected him because he gave them the tools needed to do their jobs. He could relate to everyone and showed genuine interest and compassion for tough street kids, unmotivated students and kids headed for Harvard.

He was the epitome of “management by wandering around.” He was rarely in his office, almost always out on campus. Above all, Tom’s schools were fun places to work and great places to learn.

Tom Parker changed the culture of Turlock High. To this day the current superintendent, a former teacher hired by Tom, carries on his legacy with this predominant theme: “Students first, staff a close second.”

The entire district is a safe and pleasant learning environment where students and staff enjoy coming to school, thanks to Tom Parker.

Frank Cusenza, Ed Felt, Rod Hollars, Jim Trainor and Bob Triebsch, all longtime friends and former colleagues of Tom Parker at Turlock High, contributed to this remembrance.

MEMORIAL SERVICE

A memorial service for Tom Parker will be at noon, June 24, in the dining room at Stanislaus State. Donations in his memory can be made to the Tom Parker Memorial Scholarship Fund at Turlock High School.

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