Man gets autograph three decades later

PERRYSBURG – A Perrysburg man recently connected once more with legendary race car driver Richard Petty.

John Parker has been a fan since the early 1970s. At a race at the Michigan International Speedway, his
brother helped connect with a local fan club that was recruiting members.
He joined and met Petty personally at special meetings during the driver’s visits to the area for races.

Though decades ago, Parker still vividly remembers his first introduction to Petty, which was made by the
fan club organizers. Many of the fan meetings were held at the Adrian, Michigan. Holiday Inn.
"We would all go in there, ask questions and get our picture taken," Parker said. "That
first time, I didn’t know what to ask, I was dumbfounded. I had never met anybody like that."
Petty put him at ease, Parker said the driver told him, "I’m no different than you or other people.
I have a job like they do – only my job is racing cars. I’m just your average Joe."
Parker can share a variety of stories of his visits and recalls traveling to various tracks including to
Georgia and the famed Daytona track once for the Firecracker 400. The sole purpose of those trips was to
watch Petty race.
While routine for most race fans, Parker, however, uses a wheelchair, thus making the travel more
Parker says he broke his neck in 1969 diving into a swimming pool,
"My parents had told me for three years not to do that, but as a 16 or 17-year-old, you don’t pay
attention to your parents," Parker said.
He was hospitalized for six months and was given very dim prospects for recover. He recalls being told he
would never again stand on his feet.
"You don’t tell me no, and you don’t tell me I can’t do something. You might as well be talking to
the wall," Parker said.
While he never was able to walk unassisted, in his younger days, he did stand and move with crutches. He
remembers having a couple of pictures taken standing next to Petty.
Over the years some of the pictures were lost, but he did retain one special picture. Petty’s truck
driver had taken the photo of the two men together in the early 1980s at one of their meetings. The
truck driver developed the picture and mailed it to Parker.
Petty was in attendance at an event. connected to the recent Ladies Professional Golf Association event
held in the area. Parker made plans to go. He enlarged that picture and made two copies.
"I autographed one myself and thanked him for all the memories," Parker said.
He framed both pictures with plans for Petty to autograph the other for himself.
Though the plans had been made, Parker had slipped into what he describes as a bout of depression.
Since the death of his wife, Parker has resided at Heartland of Perrysburg. The officials at Heartland
knew of his desire and his plans for the pictures.
"I was hitting rock bottom, and they knew what i was going to do, but I just wasn’t in the
mood," Parker said.
Heartland officials, through its Hearts Desire program, quickly arranged for the visit, easing some of
the burden of Parker getting to the venue.
Activity director Alex Gonzales, noted,  "John told me that he dreamed of giving Richard Petty a
copy of the picture and getting his autograph. I knew this was really important to John, but the event
was only a few days away so we had to act fast to make arrangements."
They made it happen.
When Parker arrived, even just seeing Petty’s Dodge Challenger almost immediately started to brighten
Parker’s mood. "When I got there and I know I had seen that car before, I changed my attitude a
whole lot."
As he was preparing to get the autograph, fumbling to get the picture out of the frame, he was instructed
to turn around and there was Petty.
"When I saw him it was like going to see your neighbor you had not seen for some time," the
senior said.
While Petty didn’t recall Parker’s name, he did remember him and shared details of their first and other
"The fact that he knew me really knocked me off my rocker," Parker said.
He says the visit brought him out of his depression, especially when Petty graciously accepted Parker’s
autographed picture and returned the favor.
"So we both have one. He’s got one autographed by me, and I’ve got one autographed by him. That was
a good time,"
The fan added, "He still has that Petty smile. You never see him without a smile."
Parker says he remembered Petty’s words on the subject as he once told him, "It takes less muscles
to smile than to frown, I guess I’m just a lazy person, so I must smile."
Parker himself is now smiling again and says, "I’d like to see him again. If I do, that will be
great. But if I don’t, I will still have my memories."