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Salute to Veterans: ‘Very rewarding’ military service changed Bill Parish’s life for the better


Bill Parish served in the U.S. Air Force. (Photo provided)


To honor those who have served our country in the military, KyForward has joined with a UK School of Journalism advanced journalism class taught by Dr. Michael Farrell for a series of stories on veterans and their personal experiences. We hope these stories provide insight for all of us and give special meaning to the celebration of Veterans Day Nov. 11.

By Samantha C. Rogers
Special to KyForward

Bill Parish dreamed of playing in the National Football League. But when injury struck, his career shifted to one behind military lines. For Parish, now 79, the U.S. Air Force changed his life. “The whole experience was satisfying,” he said. “I learned a lot and met a lot of people. It was very rewarding.” And he wouldn’t change it for the world.

Parish was recruited as a running back for the University of Evansville football team, awarded both a partial music and partial athletic scholarship to attend college. With so much potential, it was tardiness that struck one bright afternoon.

“It was a game when I was a freshman,” he said. “We played Butler University.” Because he was running late, Parish didn’t have time to tape up his ankles. During the third quarter, “I got hit on the side and my ankle got twisted,” he said. “It turned out to be a real mess.”

But, the funniest part “was my mother,” he said. After he was carried off the field, Parish sat in an ambulance when “it started rocking. Suddenly, the door bursts open and my mother jumps into the car. She pointed her finger at me and said ‘That’s your last football game!’”

While Parish was benched for the rest of his freshman year, he was able to start with his team as a sophomore. However, his injury dashed any hope of playing for a professional team after graduation. Parish still believes if it weren’t for his injury, “I would have been playing professional football.” To this day, he continues to wear a brace to protect his ankle.

Also a member of ROTC at the University of Evansville, Parish decided to join the military and pursue his dream of flying. “I signed up for the Air Force right out of college,” he said. “I was 22 years old.”

Parish joined as a second lieutenant and was first stationed in Texas. “For the first year or so, I was training to be a pilot,” he said. However, his dream was cut short due to an excess of pilots after the Korean War. “My commanding officers came to me and said that if I wanted to remain on flight status, I would have to sign up for six to 10 years,” he said. “I decided this wasn’t what I wanted to do and I was reassigned.”

Although he signed up to be transferred to Europe, “they put me on a flight to New Mexico the next morning,” Parish said. Throughout his service to the U.S. Air Force, he was stationed “quite a few places,” Parish said. “I started out there [in Texas] and went from there to Georgia to New Mexico – that’s where all the alien ships are!”

Parish was a little unsure about his reassignment. “Green country was all I knew and here everything was brown.”  

After his plane landed in New Mexico, he stopped at a local trading center for directions. “I asked [one of the workers] if he knew where the Air Force base was. He took me to the window and said ‘See the horizon? Keep going that direction and all of a sudden, you’ll run into it.’ I thought ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”

Despite his reservations, Parish met his best friends in New Mexico. “We still send cards to each other every year,” he said.

When the U.S. Air Force saw Parish had a music background, “they [also] put me in charge of music, specifically the band,” he said. He served as the director of the Special Services band and was also asked to direct the Air Force band at an event in Washington, D.C. “It was quite an honor,” he said. “Most of the guys were extremely talented musicians who joined the Air Force and needed a break.”

While Parish can play several instruments, including the cello and trumpet, he decided to stick to directing. “These musicians were very, very talented,” he said. “Much more than I was.”

Parish was last stationed in California at Edwards Air Force Base before retiring at 25. “I came out as a captain,” he said.

He met his future wife, Nancy Watkins, while stationed at the base, who often visited her father, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. Right after Parish was discharged, the two were married. They later moved back to his hometown of Evansville, where he was hired as a salesman for General Electric. “I started working for the business world instead of the music world,” he said. “I did pretty well.”

Despite his “retirement” from the military, Parish continued to stay involved with the Air Force later in life. “I was in the Reserves for a while, six to eight years,” Parish said. He and a couple of his friends met at a nearby Air Force base ever month. “I didn’t like it as much, but it kept us in touch,” he said.

Today, Parish is retired and lives in Louisville. He is remarried with five kids and six grandkids. Parish also relives his football days every Thanksgiving when his family competes for the annual “Turkey Bowl” cup. “It’s always a good time,” he said. “And funny things always happen when the family gets together, especially when we’re playing football.”

While he never played alongside his contemporaries, such as Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr or Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown, or hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy after winning the Super Bowl, Parish met his friends for a lifetime while proudly serving his country as a member of the U.S. Air Force. He says military service changed his life for the better and doesn’t know where he would’ve been without it.

“I spent my time in service to my country which was good. It was a lot of fun, too,” Parish said. “It’s a different way of life, but it’s very rewarding.”

Samantha C. Rogers is a journalism student at the University of Kentucky.

To read other stories in this year’s series, as well as last year’s, click here.

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