By Martie Thompson
On June 25, former St. Johns County resident Cathy Parker hosted a walk down memory lane as she celebrated the publication of her book, “Northern Lights,” with a book signing at Bono’s in Fruit Cove. Hundreds of people attended over the course of the day to share stories about a special time in the community that took place more than a decade ago.
“The first day the book was available, I wanted to celebrate with St. Johns County,” Parker said. “The great thing is there are so many stories from so many different people involved. It was a great time to reminisce.”
“Northern Lights” tells Parker’s story of the community’s efforts to build an artificial turf field in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost town in the United States. Dubbed “Project Alaska Turf” and led by Parker, the initiative resulted in a new football field for a fledgling high school football team that definitely had its share of obstacles.
“We were going to church one Sunday, and our kids asked us to watch a show on ESPN about this new football team in Barrow,” Parker said. “We were amazed at what we saw: they were playing on a frozen field with gravel.”
Parker said by the time the family left church that Sunday, she felt compelled to act — despite the controversy of cost (not only of the field, but also travel expenses the team would incur to travel to opponents), and her understanding that educators thought the money could be spent in better ways.
“But I told my husband, I believe football would change the lives of these young men,” Parker said.
Parker had first hand knowledge of the benefits of an organized youth activity like football; her husband, Carl Parker, was an assistant coach at Bartram Trail High School under head coach Darrell Sutherland and both of her sons played the game. At the time in 2006, NW St. Johns County was undergoing one of its many growth spurts and field space for youth athletics was at a premium. Carl Parker was familiar with turf fields from his work with the county’s Parks and Rec Department as they investigated such a field for this growing area.
“I thought, if we need a turf field here, how much more do they need one in Alaska?” Cathy Parker said.
And so the project began.
“We had a press conference in February 2007 at the Bartram Trail High School football field,” Parker said. “The news hit the AP wire and went national overnight.”
With help from many different parties, including other local football parents, Coach Sutherland, the turf field company, Rotary clubs and local merchants, Project Alaska Turf was a success and six short months later, the Barrow Alaska Whalers played their first game on their new field. Parker and a delegation of 13 representing St. Johns County attended. Sutherland also instigated a type of exchange program between the two teams, with members of the Barrow Whalers visiting the Bartram Trail Bears and vice versa.
Fast forward to 2014, when Parker had the opportunity to meet Honnie Korngold, an independent film producer. Over the years, Parker had been approached by numerous filmmakers to tell her story, but she had always declined. Something about Korngold intrigued her though, and the more Parker learned about the independent film industry, the more the momentum built to bring the story to film.
“It was at this time that I felt even more inclined to write a book so I could tell the entire story,” Parker said. “A movie is great, but it is only 90 minutes — and I wanted to make sure to honor everyone who helped with the project and entrusted me to tell the story.”
In March 2018, Parker signed a publishing contract with Harper Collins and hired co-author David Thomas. In addition to the book signing at Bono’s, Parker has signed books available at local bookstores and will be doing another book signing in conjunction with Coach Sutherland at the Winn Dixie on County Road 210 on Saturday, Aug. 17 from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Parker noted that the Barrow football team won the Alaska state football championship in 2017 and also earned the award for the highest grade point average of football programs in the state. There has also been a significant impact on the graduation rates for the Barrow high school students. Since the program was added, the State of Alaska reports the graduation rate went from 46.8 percent in the 2005 – 2006 school year to 83.6 percent in the 2008 – 2009 school year, one year after the new field was delivered.
“Northern Lights” is available for purchase at www.northernlightsbook.com.
Photo courtesy Kelly White, KWhite Communications
Cathy Parker hosts a book signing at Bono’s on June 25.