Alumnus, 95, returns to high school

Graduating seniors at Jordan High School - one of the oldest institutions in the Salt Lake Valley - were treated to a unique perspective at graduation ceremonies June 3.

Thomas J. Parmley, one of two known surviving members of the Class of 1915, the school's first graduating class, returned to address the Class of 1993. He is a member of the Colonial Hills 1st Ward, Salt Lake Hillside Stake.Holding a doctorate in physics from Cornell University, Dr. Parmley, 95, has accomplished much since receiving his high school diploma 75 years ago.

Not the least of his accomplishments was marrying LaVern Watts in the Salt Lake Temple on June 28, 1923. She became general president of the Primary, and served in that position from 1951 to 1974. She died six years later.

During a 50-year career at the University of Utah, Dr. Parmley taught physics to thousands of students in various professional fields. The university, in 1982, conferred an honorary doctor of sciences degree upon him recognizing his contributions to the university.

His son, William Watts Parmley, M.D., chief, Division of Cardiology, University of California at San Francisco, recently was guest speaker at commencement exercises for the University of Utah School of Medicine.

Jordan Principal Frederic Ash said he and Dr. Parmley have corresponded for three years, since the day the scholar called the school seeking alumni information to organize a 75th-year class reunion.

The only other surviving class member he could find was Eva Butler Israelson. The two got together with family and friends for their reunion luncheon. (See Aug. 11, 1990, Church News.)

This year, Principal Ash invited the venerable alumnus to address the graduating class. The occasion was significant, since Jordan School District plans to replace the high school building with a new facility within the next few years.

"For the purpose of this talk, I would like to think of this building as something more than bricks and steel and mortar but rather as a personality and observer of past events," Dr. Parmley said at this year's ceremony. "This building and I have seen a lot together."

He cited four major discoveries that happened near the time of his birth in 1897 that would "help unlock some of nature's innermost secrets": X-rays, radioactivity, the electron and radium.

"By the time I entered Jordan High, radio was having its humble beginnings, and the Model T car was the latest in travel," he remembered. "Also, the brand new Panama Canal would soon be open to ships."

In the field of communication, sound was added to motion pictures in the 1920s, and television came of age in the '50s, he noted. "Now today, we have worldwide communication by means of man-made satellites."

Mentioning advancements in the knowledge of astronomy, Dr. Parmley referred to the two brightest stars in the Big Dipper constellation, Alpha and Epsilon.

"The light which left these stars at the time of my graduation in 1915, traveling at the rate of 186,000 miles each second, would require 75 and 78 years respectively to reach the earth," he said.

"Before saying, `So what?' consider the following amazing coincidences: the light from star Alpha arrived just in time for my 75th-year high school reunion three years ago, and the light from star Epsilon, traveling during the entire lifetime of this building should arrive at any moment to make this graduation so very special."

In 1915, the prevailing belief was that the earth had changed little over long periods of time, he said. "Now we know that continents move around like rafts on the sea of hot magma below and that the resulting collisions produce mountains, earthquakes and volcanos. The earth is as restless as a pot of chili on a hot stove."

He noted that much of what is known about the earth has been learned during the lifespan of the graduates he was addressing. He also mentioned the marvels of space exploration that have come about relatively recently.

"Do you see why I get so excited about science? I hope this building, my friend and companion, if it could speak, would feel the same.

" . . . I have had much time to observe the lifestyles of many people. Some seem passive, hardly alive with nothing to challenge their imaginations. Some spend endless hours watching mindless programs on television. Fortunately there are others who eagerly accept life's challenges and opportunities by setting and vigorously pursuing worthy personal goals. They maintain a keen interest in what is going on about them. You will have to make a choice as to which type of person you wish to be. Do not waste your life!"

Life is such a precious gift, it should be guarded from needless dilution, he urged. "Each day is not just another day but more like a falling drop of water, a golden moment of life's span adding to an increasingly rich pool of living. Make the most of it and you will never regret your decision."

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed