Aspirational Chat with Jean Parker

Jean Parker is the General Manager of Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. If you can believe it, she’s been working there for 41 years (since high school!). Her job, which centers around providing a good time to many, describes how she approaches her entire life! The theme of her house, where she raised four kids, is "lived in and played in.” Jean’s favorite travel find is furry and has 4 legs, she has a jukebox in her kitchen, a slide that leads from her deck to her yard and has the video game Frogger in her basement. I was hoping she’d ask me to move in, but no such luck! This was a fun interview with a woman who gives back to our community and her family in so many neat ways. I hope you enjoy this Chat as much as I did! 

AFP: I loved being greeted by your dogs in the driveway when I arrived! This is a great neighborhood - so vast and tucked away. Tell me a little bit about why you chose this neighborhood and how long you've been here. 

JP: My late husband and I were born and bred in Howard County. We both grew up when Howard County wasn't as developed, and we had a lot of places to roam. So we were able to pretty much recreate that here. This house is smaller than where we moved from. It was more about the setting. Through the years the kids made trails through the woods, which was nice for their dirt biking and ATV days.  One day I came home and to my horror is a big ATV jump in the yard. My oldest son was 14 at the time and he had a very good friend whose dad did commercial projects, so he had a lot of access to large equipment. They had pulled several bobcats, a backhoe and a front end loader on site, did some digging, trucked in more dirt and in the backyard they created a couple very large ATV and cycle jumps. Once I got over the shock of it, I was actually kind of amused about their creativity, ingenuity and courage -- being able to do that and beg for forgiveness later [laughter].

AFP: You have 4 kids?

JP: Yes. They’re all grown up now, my oldest son is 29, one daughter is 27, a younger daughter who is 24 and my youngest son is 22. When they were growing up my theme for the house was "lived in and played in." 

AFP: I love that theme! 

JP: My husband engineered and built the yellow playground slide off our deck. I locked myself out of the house once so had to use it. It was one of those winters where there was tons of snow and just as much ice. The back fence gate was iced shut and would not open. Everything was locked, nobody was home, my phone was inside and as I was stranded in the cold, I said to myself, "What am I going to do?" I slid down the slide! 

AFP: I love it.

JP: And to go with our “played in” theme, we have a jukebox in the kitchen.

AFP: Do you use it? 

JP: My kids do when they come home.  It has songs from R.E.M., Van Morrison and even Chuck Berry, Frank Sinatra and many more.

{Stopping for a quick selfie during my tour of Jean’s home.}

{Stopping for a quick selfie during my tour of Jean’s home.}

AFP: I can see why, based on those things, you like this neighborhood and this area. 

JP: When the kids are home, they hang out in the basement. That is where the fun part of the house is; it has the TV, pool table, a lot of games and we have a small basketball gym. So again, it was all about making a really fun growing up experience for them (& their friends!). 

AFP: I bet you can play a lot of sports in the gym. Lacrosse, basketball – what other sports have your kids played in there?

JP:  Everything, and the three dogs like it too.

AFP: I bet they do!

JP: I keep telling the kids, "This is your multipurpose room! This is where you can have your wedding reception." I haven't quite sold it to them yet. [laughter] I had a big surprise party for 3 of them (all August birthdays) the year they turned 18, 21 and 25. It was a fun scene, with a DJ and everybody dancing. My husband was into all these video games, so these are still in our basement in honor and memory of him.

AFP: Frogger! And Miss Pacman! This is awesome, Jean. So when I ask the question, "How does this home reflect who you are?" It sounds like it's reflective of how you like to live and play. 

JP: And work. It’s a thrill watching people have a good time. I get the excitement of people coming to Merriweather and creating memories. That never grows old — looking out to the horizon on the lawn and seeing everyone  singing, dancing and smiling!  Merriweather’s President/CEO Seth Hurwitz talks about how we provide a great escape and that is so true.

AFP: What is your favorite room in your house? 

JP: I really like the deck with the backdrop of the woods, it's quiet, like you are living in a tree house. You don't hear airplanes or any traffic, you just hear nature and see a sky full of stars. If it's rainy or a snowy day, I'll go sit out on the front porch – it’s covered — just to enjoy the views. 

AFP: Do you have a favorite chair or favorite spot to sit inside? 

Alyssa (daughter) : Sit, ha, she's either going full speed or she's asleep. [laughter]

JP: Ha, well, I do like to spend time in the family room which has many pictures, family memories and a good view outside. 

{There is fun to be had around every corner in Jean’s home, such as these throwback arcade games.}

{There is fun to be had around every corner in Jean’s home, such as these throwback arcade games.}

AFP: You have a large kitchen right off your family room, do you like to cook? Do you eat out a lot due to your work schedule?

JP: I like to cook, but I absolutely need to follow recipes! Time is more of a concern than anything else. Cooking takes a back seat for sure.

AFP: I imagine, too, if you are working, concerts keep you there late. So you're not really home at "dinner time," so you may be eating on the job when you have time. 

JP: And we have really good food options at work – that is a main focus of our company - so I'm able to get great food that is healthy, too. Plus the artists can be very particular in their hospitality riders, so we cater to them and advance meals accordingly. There's a lot of opportunities to eat! [laughter]

When it comes to cooking at home, I want to get to the point where we have Sunday dinners, all of us.  And if I knew that they were going to be say 15 people here, I would love to make that big meal! The more the merrier. My older daughter's boyfriend, he's become quite the chef. So when he's here we can all team together and have a nice production. 

AFP: I love it, a family affair. Which is fun. I see, as you described it, your "family wall" of photos in your family room. What is your favorite treasure, aside from the family photos? Something that makes you think of a trip or something the kids made you? 

JP: One of my favorite things right now, which I have front and center, is a photo, an older picture of my mom and my dad. 

AFP: It's a nice candid picture.

Alyssa (daughter): The one of us four in the black frame, we surprised her with that for Christmas one year. We didn't tell her we got pictures done and then we gave it to her. 

JP: Yeah, that was very sweet! That was probably one of my best Christmas presents ever because they'll all had to figure it out amongst themselves and work together to pull off the surprise. And, it worked!

AFP: What about this piece of art here?

JP: That was something that Alyssa did. The school system selected it to be showcased at The Mall in Columbia. 

AFP: You mentioned the trip when you took the kids to see the Ravens in the Super Bowl in New Orleans. Do you have a favorite travel find? Maybe something from that trip? Or you mentioned Ocean City, New Jersey. Do you have a favorite piece that helps you remember those places? 

JP: My favorite travel find from the Super Bowl trip was later getting our big dog, Nola – an English Mastiff. It was my older daughter's idea to name her NOLA after that trip – New Orleans, Louisiana, which was the location of the Superbowl that year. And the memory continues every single time you say her name. I treasure more the memories themselves and the stories that follow than any actual tangible things.

AFP: Nola is definitely a favorite travel find! [laughter] 

{Alyssa’s artwork, which was featured in a showcase at the Mall in Columbia several years back.}

{Alyssa’s artwork, which was featured in a showcase at the Mall in Columbia several years back.}

AFP: How people live in their homes is what this whole Chat series about. I spend a lot of time in peoples' homes due to my design business, and what I find that one of the first things I talk to clients about is how they live in their home and how it functions for them. Then, of course, I'm there because we're wanting to improve it in some way between function and looks, usually, a change in lifestyle and how people want to live.

So that's where this whole blog chat series idea came from, I want to meet people and find out how they live. Specifically, women that are making a difference in or are known in the community. I want to share how they live and what their aspirations are. What are your aspirations for your home or for your life? As you look forward with your kids mostly moved out and you've got the dogs and this great job. What’s next?

JP: The one thing I've really noticed about living here, which I used to take for granted, is being able to simply walk out the front door and, without getting in a car, find a place to hike, run or bike – the parklike setting on less traveled roads is perfect for this. But, the downside is we don’t get pizza delivery! In terms of moving forward, the kids have all encouraged me to downsize, but I'm not a downsize person. I always want to have space, even if the space is only used a small percentage of the time when the kids come over and hopefully one day, the  grandbabies. I want them to be able to come home where they grew up and yes, have fun. 

AFP: I think there's going to be a lot of fun had here with the future generation. 

JP: As time goes on, it'd be nice to have a more updated kitchen, but right now it works and it's functional. When we built the house we made the kitchen particularly larger because we knew that it would be the hang out spot. It's certainly served that purpose, and then some.

AFP: Aside from getting outdoors and running, what else do you like to do in your free time? 

JP: I founded the youth field hockey program, Howard Stampede, a non-profit organization. I started it in 2002 and I work on that in my free time. It's a way to give back to the community. I coached for a long time and I may get back into coaching again one day. It also connects me with my competitive side. My kids always played sports. I enjoyed going to their games and the camaraderie with the other parents. Developing this league and the opportunity to coach again continues that for me.  Watching it grow has been very satisfying. At first it was, “How do I go about doing this?" and now it is in its 17th year.

AFP: Very impressive “free time” activity! Did you play field hockey? 

JP: I did, but my kids were always lightyears better than me. There's a picture up there of all three of us, my daughters and me. That was me in high school and these are my daughters, when they were in third and sixth grades. 

AFP: I love that whole idea of taking a family passion and spreading your interest into the community so that other people can participate too. 

JP: It gave others an opportunity which didn't exist here in Howard County. 

{I couldn’t help but capture this “dog pile” moment with all three of Jean’s four-legged children.}

{I couldn’t help but capture this “dog pile” moment with all three of Jean’s four-legged children.}

AFP: You clearly have an interest in living and playing and staying active. You've meshed that all together. Even with your job, it's all about creating great experiences for others. Did I read correctly that you've been working at Merriweather since you graduated high school? 

JP: I started here in 1977. It was my summer job thru college. After graduation, I worked as a computer consultant in DC and then Merriweather at nights. I was offered a full-time job here, but didn't think I would take it, because my major was in the computer field. But, I ended up making the big change in April 1983.  

AFP: Wow. That's pretty amazing. 

JP: It's a long time, but it really seems short. It has gone by so fast. 

AFP: To be involved in a company, in any company, from starting off and doing those jobs you do as a kid and part-time in the summer, and then to see it through all aspects is such a powerful way to be able to run an organization now that you've seen and done a lot of the entry-level tasks. You have a perspective and a hands-on knowledge of, "I know what was involved in that and I know how to best then manage it." 

JP: The challenges in an ever-changing industry and community continue to make it interesting.  It's been fun and the best part about the job is getting to see a show from start to finish.  During events, we often have to come up with real-time solutions very quickly. Four of us have a combined 140 years of experience here at Merriweather, so all of us being able to pull from that helps to keep all running smoothly.   

AFP: If you weren't managing Merriweather, what do you think you’d like to do?

JP: I don't know, because I've never really thought of that! This was my 42nd season, the time has passed so very quickly. It really has. I sure hope the next 40 years don’t pass as fast!

AFP: Do you have a favorite performance or band?

JP: Even though I'm not a Dead Head, probably one of the most powerful shows was the Dear Jerry show in May of 2015. The energy at the show was pretty much second-to-none. The other show that would have closely rivaled that one was Foo Fighters this past season.  Seth was able to find a way to book them at Merriweather even though they can easily fill stadiums. Probably my favorite show, was Elton John show in the ‘90s. He started out with one of the songs from the Lion King and it was just one of those magical moments. I am working during shows. I do hear all of them, but I don't get to see much of any show.

AFP: After college I lived within walking distance of Merriweather. I remember seeing Hootie and The Blowfish in the mid-nineties. It poured buckets while we were there and we had to buy t-shirts to keep dry. People were sliding down the muddy hill. I really enjoyed the show, but the weather made it really memorable — you can't forget standing out in the rain all night. 

JP: I do remember that show! Going back thru the years, bands like Jimmy Buffett and Chicago would do multiple days. We would have softball games, the staff against the tour. Those were always such fun times. 

{Jean’s spacious kitchen includes a well-stocked jukebox!}

{Jean’s spacious kitchen includes a well-stocked jukebox!}

AFP: What is the best advice you've ever received? 

JP:  “Work hard, be honest and treat others how you would like to be treated.”  And my advice to others, to parents, is “give your kids a long leash!”

AFP: What is your favorite vacation spot? 

JP: Definitely Ocean City, New Jersey; a lot of fond family memories starting in the 1960s. We still try to visit once a summer. It is great seeing all the extended cousins spend time with each other. 

AFP: That's wonderful. When you're having a bad day or are just off a little, what do you do to lift your spirits or get back on track? 

JP: I make time to take a run. Running is a great escape and in my mind there's nothing better. 

AFP: Do you run every morning? 

JP: Probably 5 times a week. A younger friend at work had a heart attack not long ago and my takeaway was, life is short, make some me time. It’s a good healthy thing to do for a lot of different reasons.

I treasure more the memories themselves and the stories that follow than any actual tangible things.

AFP: When bad things happen, it's nice when you can take something good away from it and improve your life. Now, I have some fun questions!

Coffee or tea? Iced tea. 90% unsweetened and 10% sweetened. So when I am out and I order it somewhere, they ask, "Sweetened or unsweetened?" I ask for both and they ask, "Half and half?" and I say no – 90% unsweetened and 10% sweetened. [laughter]. 

Cats or dogs? Many dogs. 

Are you are morning or a night person? Oh, a night person. If I have to get up in the morning I can, but I'm a lot more productive at night.

Cake or pie? Cake, and it's got to be chocolate.

AFP: I love a woman who knows her desserts! 

Netflix or movie theater? Neither.

Summer or winter? Summer, definitely.

AFP: You can't run Merriweather and say winter, right? Plus you like to be outside. 

JP: Summer is great even though it's our busy season, and crazy busy from the middle of March through the middle of August – I love the sun, warm days and late sunsets. When summer ends and Merriweather ends, it’s like the end of summer camp. The Merriweather season is like  putting on a party 35 times a year and when the party is over, it's sad. 

AFP: Especially if you like that atmosphere, intensity and the socialization. 

JP: Right, I surely don’t mind the controlled chaos. [laughter] 

Chocolate or vanilla ice cream? Chocolate with chocolate chips. 

Online shopping or shopping in stores? I actually still like to go in the stores. I like people watching and walking around. 

Favorite holiday? Easter because it's starting to get warm again. You also don't have the pressure of presents. The gift is being together as a family.

Favorite food? If ice cream is a food or chocolate is a food, I would say chocolate chip ice cream. [laughter]. Oddly enough, I also like broccoli, steamed broccoli with parmesan cheese. 

AFP: Those are very different! 

Do you have a favorite restaurant? Not particularly. Although, I do like The Narrows Restaurant on Kent Island. It's not too far over the Chesapeake Bay bridge and the setting on the water is nice.  Or, Annie’s Kitchen out in western Maryland, love their chocolate chip pancakes!

If you could live in a different state or country, where would that be? New Zealand. My younger daughter has been there a couple times. The backdrops and the scenery look amazing. I know it has a hole in the ozone, but I would wear a big floppy hat, and yes, sunscreen. Ha.

AFP: Well, that's my last question! Thank you so much — this was fun!

This Chat left me thinking about how I could add more fun to my life. If you saw the slide off of Jean’s deck you’d be thinking the same thing! Outdoor concerts and youth sports are a great start. Hootie & The Blowfish are coming to Merriweather in August of 2019 with Barenaked Ladies — that’s a show I’d love to see (and stay dry for!). My oldest daughter plays volleyball so there will be many tournaments over the next 6 months for cheering and family time. Now to figure out a few family fun activities so we can create some new memories. I hope you’re also inspired to find your fun!