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My Dad, Polka King

By Theresa Parker

My dad is a member of the Great Generation. He served in the army during World War II and was on one of those LSTs that emptied soldiers onto the beach at Normandy. He earned a Bronze Star. He never really talked about it though, even when my sons would interview him for a Veteran’s Day report, he wouldn’t elaborate other than to say he participated. As I was reading stories about the 65th anniversary of D-Day, I came across a veteran who said he never talked about it either until just recently. To paraphrase, he said he did what he was supposed to do when he was in Europe and when he came home that assignment was over and he went on to the next thing.

I think that’s the mantra of that generation. Do what you have to do then move on. That’s my dad, Willie Cernoch. He grew up in the farming Czech community of Dubina about 95 miles west of Houston. Dubina is on the Texas tour of Painted Churches with its quaint Catholic Church—modest on the outside, glorious on the inside. The entrance to the church has a list of hometown heroes from the war and my dad’s name is listed. Makes me proud. But there are so many more reasons to be proud of him.

He has built a life on honesty, hard work and strong faith. With only a formal education through the eighth grade, he learned a trade. He was a cement mason for 40-plus years. He helped build many landmarks in the city, most notably and one he was most proud of—the Astrodome. He worked in all kinds of weather or sometimes he didn’t work because of the weather, which made the family nervous since no work meant no pay. He also was a member of a union—not a very popular thing to admit these days. We suffered through some strikes, but the union is what gave our family insurance and a pension when he retired.

Once he moved to the city, he exchanged his country name Willie for his city name Bill. He was a mentor to young men entering the cement mason profession. Upon his retirement several wished him the best and felt they were not only better masons because of him but better people.

I never heard my father complain about working—how hard it was, how much his knees undoubtedly ached after being on them all day long finishing a slab of concrete, how brutally hot or cold it was. I’d say, “Hot day today huh, dad?” He’d answer, “I mean.” Man of few words, this was one of his signature lines. It’s just how things were. This was his job—what he was supposed to do. When he was to start a new job on a Monday, he drove to the site on Sunday to make sure he knew how to get there so he wouldn’t be late. No Google Maps or GPS back then. I think that’s probably why I arrive early everywhere to this day.

My dad has been the prince of the Polka Lovers Klub of America (PoLKofA) Texas Chapter twice. He and his Klub members helped Torma Communications and Ellen Custer's 2d design celebrate 25 years in business last October.

My dad has been on the royal court of the Polka Lovers Klub of America (PoLKofA) Texas Chapter twice. He and his Klub members helped Torma Communications and Ellen Custer's 2d design celebrate 25 years in business last October. He also served as a Klub director, booking bands and venues. No one knows more about polka history in Texas than my dad.

He got up every day, put in a hard day’s work and enjoyed coming home to a beer and dinner expertly prepared by my mom. Sounds a little like Archie Bunker, right? Wrong. He enjoyed his life, his family. During the week, you work. On Sunday, you go to church. On weekends he loved to barbecue, go fishing, dance or just listen to polka music. This is happy music he would always tell me. I think polka music was his Prozac. It helped him cope. It was his happy place. Of course when I was a teen, I wanted no part of polka music. It was so not cool. And I wasn’t even trying to be cool. I just didn’t want to be any less cool than I already was.

His work cars were always classic autos—’57 Chevy, ’63 Chevy, an old Impala not sure of the year. When it came time to get me my first car he made sure it was a tank—a four-door Bonneville that I did put quite a few dents in.

As an only child, I grew up in a modest house in the Heights. In fact, we rented until my dad and mom had saved enough to buy a house when I was in junior high. The Heights was a great place to grow up. Full of unpretentious hard-working, blue-collar families. Now I can’t afford to buy to a house there.  Somehow on our one-income living, my parents were able to send me to Catholic school. My dad felt this would give me a strong foundation. And he and my mom were always in the stands Friday nights watching me perform at half time with the drill team. Side note—I tried to be in the band and played the clarinet briefly—very badly, very briefly. I think it let Dad down as he had high hopes of me being able to play one of his favorites—the Clarinet Polka, but it wasn’t to be.

Dad loved football. He and I would watch it together every Sunday. Watching the Oilers find new ways to lose eventually became too much for my dad and he had to give it up or increase his blood pressure medication. They would make some stupid mistake and he would shout, “Oh come on!” Then leave to go to his happy polka place. I think many Oiler fans are still in therapy.

I guess you could say I’m a daddy’s girl.  He taught me to ride a bike, drive, mow the grass (not excited about that one), fish and clean fish including how to skin a catfish. We had some great conversations sitting in a boat on the lake at dawn or sometimes we said nothing at all. I even once said I wanted to be a cement mason like him but he quickly talked me out of that one. He was proud that I went to college and even though when I got into corporate journalism I don’t think he understood what I did, he was proud just the same. He was beaming when my oldest son took up the French horn and was actually good at it. And he is so proud that Will has chosen music as a career. He attended Will’s graduation from Berklee College of Music in Boston last summer and it was very special to have him there. My youngest, Alec, also has a gift for music with a talent for French horn as well and for voice. I don’t think dad has missed a performance of either of his grandsons, except this year in May.

He couldn’t attend Alec’s spring choir show because he was in the hospital. My dad was in a car wreck the Monday after Easter. He fractured his neck and lower back. He had surgery and has been recovering ever since in ICU, bouncing back from one complication after another. This Thursday he finally was moved to a regular hospital room. Through it all, I have played some of his favorite polka CDs. I think it has helped him stay in his happy place. I hope so because he has been through so much, but here again, my dad is plodding along, doing what he is supposed to do—get better. There are more dances to attend, more grandson events to attend like graduation, maybe even a wedding soon. The doctors have been amazed that this 84-year-old has been able to bounce back from some of his setbacks in ICU. They don’t understand; it’s just dad doing what he has to do. This will be a Father’s Day to remember. I salute my dad and his perseverance, his notion that life is to be celebrated. Just like polka music, it’s a gift from God.

A Tribute to My Mom – An Example to Live By

Okay, I admit I may be a little bit prejudiced, but my mother is the best mom in the world. Her name is Mary Owens and she turned 79 years young on April 4. She was born in Avinger, Texas, population 600, as the youngest child and only daughter of Marshall and Florence Felker. They named her Mary Frances, but her two older brothers called her Sis, and that is the name that has stuck with her to this day. (As a sidenote, she wanted to be called M.F. when she was a girl – something she laughs about today given the popular meaning.)

With grandson Patrick Torma, Fourth of July 2008.

With grandson Patrick Torma, Fourth of July 2008.

A third generation Texan, she has a personality that reminds me of former Texas Governor Ann Richards – classy, witty, fun to be around and someone who can turn a Texas expression with the best of them. When the temperatures go below freezing, it’s not just cold – it’s colder than a well digger’s ass in Butte, Montana. Someone is not just anxious or jumpy – they are as nervous as a whore in church.

My mother taught me a lot of valuable lessons in life just by her own example of living. Some of them:

Dancing with her oldest grandson on his wedding day, October 2008.

Dancing with her oldest grandson Thomas Torma on his wedding day, October 2008.



Stay young at heart. My mom graduated from the University of Texas with a music degree, but after teaching a few years, she stayed at home to raise me and my older sister and younger brother. She was one of those “hip” mothers that my teenage friends wanted to be around. She stayed current with the latest songs and wasn’t shocked by the changing pop culture. I’ll never forget when a photo of former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller holding up his middle finger to young voters at a rally in 1976 appeared on the front page of the Dallas Morning News and my grandmother asked her what it meant. Of course, my mom knew the meaning and had used the gesture herself occasionally, but she told my grandmother it meant “go to hell.” Once, after a summer visit with grandma, my middle son, who was probably six at the time, asked me, “Did Meemaw cuss when you were a little girl?” My children still laugh about her chasing them with a flyswatter if they misbehaved. Today, they think she is as cool as my friends did back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

With great grandson Byron Torma at Avinger UMC, Fall 2007.

With great grandson Byron Torma at Avinger UMC, Fall 2007.


Give back to your community. Although a stay-at-home mom, she was a tireless worker and community volunteer. When a botanist from East Texas State University discovered there were more species of wildflowers in the triangle of little towns in Cass County where we lived, my mother co-founded the Wildflower Trails of Texas, a yearly community festival held the last weekend in April. It is still in full swing 39 years later. She was the first woman to serve on the Avinger ISD school board in the 1960s. When my father died in 1997, she moved to my grandparents’ home within the city limits and finally was able to run for city office. She served on the city council for six years and became the first woman mayor of Avinger at the age of 74.  She has probably held every lay office in the United Methodist Church, not to mention playing as church organist for more than three decades in the Methodist church where I grew up. She continues to teach Sunday school and serves on the church Finance committee. She also manages the family timber business with my brother. To say I’m proud is an understatement. 

Change happens, life happens; so roll with the flow. My mom has never been afraid of change or believed in hanging on to the past. She keeps in touch by email and was sending text messages to her grandchildren long before I had the feature on my cell phone. If the family has a “crisis” (and there have been a few!), she doesn’t dwell on it. Sure, she may be concerned or upset, but after it passes, her standard comment to me is, “Well, there’s another chapter for the book.”

With grandchildren and great grandson at my grandmother's house, Christmas 2006.

With grandchildren and great grandson at my grandmother's house, Christmas 2006.



About five years ago, we had our last Christmas Eve celebration at my grandparents’ home in Avinger because my mother decided to move to another town to be closer to my sister. Being hopelessly sentimental, I sadly commented that this would be our last Christmas celebration in a home that for me held more than 50 years of memories. My mother looked at me over her wine glass and in classic fashion said, “Move on.”

Fight for what you believe in. My mom grew up in an era and in a part of the state where the civil rights movement moved at a snail’s pace. She told me recently she remembered as a little girl in the 1930s going downtown on election day and seeing a dummy in a noose hanging in front of the town’s polling place with a sign that said, “This nigger voted.” She thought it was a grave injustice then and the terrible memory seems seared in her consciousness still today. So fast-forward 70 years later when she came to town on Martin Luther King Day and saw that the city secretary was working on the national holiday. At the next city council meeting, my mother made a motion to declare MLK Day a city holiday and it was narrowly defeated. She was incensed. Realizing the all-white council needed some minority representation, she encouraged a young African American woman to run for city council the next election. She did and won. Guess what: MLK Day was voted as a city holiday shortly afterward. I saw the woman a couple of weeks ago when I went back home for the Wildflower Trails and she told me she was still on the city council. I’m proud my mother stood up for what was just and made a difference in a community not known for embracing change.

While moms can teach us important lessons in life by imparting wisdom and advice, I believe HOW they live makes a greater impact. Because of my mother’s willingness to stay forever young, I formed a soccer team when I was 40 even though I had never played sports in my life. (BTW, I never learned to play the game, but I loved wearing the uniform!) There’s no doubt her community activism impacted my ongoing 15-year labor of love to save a community green space that is now a Harris County park. And while we often disagree politically, I know her determination to stand up for what she believes in influenced my decision to serve as a delegate to the Democratic state convention last summer and spend 12 hours on election day as a clerk in last November’s historic election.

So Happy Mother’s Day, Sis Owens, and to all the other mothers out there who are setting examples to live by!

With me in Paris, March 2007
With me in Paris, March 2007.

The Power of Pithy Prose

I love to read outstanding news writing by a reporter who avoids the usual 5Ws of standard reporting and captures the true essence of a story with short, pithy prose.

Such was the lead of a story last week in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about the state representative from Terrell, Texas, who commented during a hearing on Voter ID law that Asian-American Texans might consider adopting names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.” Betty Brown’s remark was heard around the country as media outlets nationwide reported on the gaffe. But the Star-Telegram’s article by Bud Kennedy turned an average lead into a great one.

Here’s the headline and opening paragraphs:

East Texas lawmaker tells Asian-Americans to get whole ‘nuther name

Every session, somebody in the Texas Legislature says something so phenomenally stupid, America takes note.

This session, that task has fallen on Rep. Betty Brown, a Terrell Republican, who came from her East Texas ranch to tell a Chinese-American lawyer at a “voter ID” hearing that if Asian-Americans can’t get accurate IDs, they should pick new names “easier for Americans to deal with.”

Gotta love it! In comparison, here’s how other newspapers in the state reported the incident:

Houston Chronicle:

Democratic Party wants apology from lawmaker

AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Democratic Party demanded an apology Wednesday from state Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell for suggesting Asian-descent voters should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.”

 Austin-American Statesman:

 Lawmaker apologizes for remark about Asian American names

A Texas lawmaker has apologized for her comments regarding names of voters of Asian descent.

Dallas Morning News:

Texas Democrats demand apology for Betty Brown’s remarks on Asian voters’ names

AUSTIN -The Texas Democratic Party has demanded an apology from state Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, for suggesting that voters of Asian descent should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.”

Hats off to Star-Telegram Reporter Bud Kennedy for a fantastic headline and lead that stands out among the standard noise.

In his article, Kennedy also reports of a satirical Web site ( that went up shortly after Brown made her comments called the “Betty Brown Name Generator.”

I visited the site and according to the translator, my name is Tammy “Pottery Barn” Brown. Click on the link above to find out yours.

Only in Texas!

Beauty in the Unexpected

Sometimes it’s the unexpected that leaves the lasting impression on an event—something that even the best PR pro or special events planner couldn’t coordinate, script or direct.

Such was the case during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Harris County’s Matzke Park. (See related blog post below). It was a day that was heaven-made — bright sun, temperatures in the 70s and the sweet smell of spring flowers in the air. A crowd of 125 people turned out to hear local officials and community leaders, including Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole, laud the newest addition to the park – a barrier-free playground built by Be An Angel. The all-inclusive playground for kids of all ages and abilities was created in partnership with the county and the Association for Better Community Schools, a community group that I have led for the past 15 years. This is the 22nd barrier-free playground built in Harris County by Be An Angel.

County officials and local residents signed in, got their nametags and made their way to chairs under a large tent. Special needs students, including many in wheelchairs, from adjacent Matzke Elementary School and from Aldine ISD, were waiting to give the playground its first try.

After numerous speeches in which everyone responsible for this beautiful park and its newest playground structure were recognized and thanked, Commissioner Eversole stood at the podium for closing remarks. He admitted right off that he wasn’t going to try to make an inspirational speech or thank those who had already been recognized by the preceding speakers. Jokingly, he asked, “Is there anyone here today who hasn’t been thanked?”

A little special needs boy on the front row raised his hand to the delight of the crowd, which applauded enthusiastically as the young boy stood. Then, he slowly made his way to the podium and stood by the Commissioner smiling. “Do you want to say something?” the Commissioner asked. As the young boy moved to the podium and looked out into the crowd, there was a pause that seemed to last an eternity as we collectively wondered what this young boy would say.

And then he spoke these words into the microphone: “I want to thank my mom for all the nice things she does for me and to say I love her.”



A Labor of Love

[The following is the text of a speech I gave on April 3, 2009, at the ribbon cutting of a barrier-free Be An Angel playground at Matzke Park. As president of the Association for Better Community Schools (ABCS), I’ve worked with members of the community for the past 15 years to save a 20-acre green space from commercial development. Today, it is a Harris County Precinct 4 park.]

For 15 years, Matzke Park has been a labor of love for many residents in this community. There are a few of us who have been dedicated to this project from the very beginning – I call them my suburban commandos – and I’d like to recognize Joan Fitzgerald, Martin Heemer, Susan Greenwade, Kathy Vawter and Margaret Buchanan.

Carol Bennett and the Butterfly Garden at Matzke Park.

Carol Bennett and the Butterfly Garden at Matzke Park.

As head of a volunteer organization, you are always excited when a new volunteer joins the team. So several years into our effort, a woman who had recently retired from Compaq Computer started coming to our monthly meetings. And we are so thankful for Carol Bennet, a master gardener who took charge of the Butterfly Garden development. Thanks to Carol, her husband Chuck and the Norchester Garden Club, our community can enjoy and our children can benefit from the educational value of this unique beautiful setting. It’s truly been a labor of love for Carol. In fact, on the Monday after Hurricane Ike, I ventured out to check on friends in this area and drove by the park to find Carol, Chuck and their family cleaning up debris in the garden. That’s a true labor of love.

And so it was two years ago, when we decided we wanted the playground at Matzke Park to be something special – something that all children could experience and enjoy – that another volunteer stepped forward. She simply wanted to donate a swing set in memory of her late son, Tanner, who was confined to a wheel chair during his short eight years of life. She understood what it was like to go to the playground with her two able-bodied daughters and see her son not be able to play with his older sisters or the other children.

Maura Hanlon and her two daughters officially cut the ribbon on the barrier-free playground.

Maura Hanlon and her two daughters officially cut the ribbon on the barrier-free playground.

So when Maura Hanlon learned we were considering building a barrier-free playground and stepped forward to make a donation, we said, “Have we got a job for you!” We asked Maura to spearhead the project on behalf of ABCS in coordination with Be An Angel, and she’s been a driving force for getting us to where we are today. She should actually be here at the podium addressing you, but in her quiet and unassuming way, she deferred the job to me. So I want to acknowledge and thank Maura Hanlon for this labor of love.

And to all the community residents who are here today who have given money over the years, supported the Garden Club’s efforts to create the butterfly garden, attended fundraisers for the playground, read years and years of park update articles in the Norchester Times submitted by Joan Fitzgerald – to all of you who have kept the faith, look around you ¬– this is the result of our collective labor of love. And for this, I say thank you.

This student from Matzke Elementary told me, "This is the best playground ever."

This student from Matzke Elementary told me, "This is the best playground ever."


The Be An Angel playground at Matzke Park is accessible to all children, even those in wheelchairs.



Me and the suburban commandos who helped bring Matzke Park to reality.

Me and the suburban commandos who helped bring Matzke Park to reality.

Never Again, to the Fifth Degree!!

I know. I know. I say it every year. Never again will I do the MS150, the 180-mile bike ride from Houston to Austin to raise money to find a cure for multiple sclerosis. Yet, once again, I’m getting ready to make the two-day trek to Austin on April 18 and 19 – for the FIFTH time.

Me and my biking buddies.

Me and my biking buddies.

I first began this quest as a personal challenge the year after I turned 50. But after months of training and several major hills outside of LaGrange and in Austin, I vowed never again. Then my son, Patrick, met me at the finish line in Austin with a dozen red roses and said, “Mom, I want to do this next year with you.” But that was going to be the last time for sure. Now it’s five years later and I’m spinning and weight training and road riding.

I guess I continue to ride because there is something about the physical challenge of riding a bike 180 miles. Just when you don’t think you can peddle another stroke, you round the corner and see a person sitting in a wheelchair by the side of the road holding a big “Thank You” sign. I continue to ride for Doris Rosenbaum, who died this past December after a 26-year battle with MS. Although I never met Doris, I kept up with her battle with MS each year from my friend and MS supporter Joan Fitzgerald. Joan tells me that although Doris’ poor body was so compromised at the end, her mind and attitude were an inspiration to all who knew and loved her.

Perhaps I keep signing up for this event for the two brothers who grew up across the road from me in northeast Texas who today both suffer from MS or the father of a young boy on my son Byron’s soccer team. Although he looks like the picture of health today, he woke up one morning paralyzed and was later diagnosed with MS, ending his own ability to do the long-distance cycling events that he loved, including the Hotter Than Hell Ride in West Texas.

So here I am again seeking donations from you to support the MS Society of Texas. Here is my fundraising link for easy and secure online giving:

If you prefer to mail a check, you can send donations to the National MS Society, Lone Star Chapter, 8111 N. Stadium Dr., Suite 100, Houston, TX 77054. Be sure and put my name in the memo section.

Last year, I matched all donations dollar for dollar, raising a total of more than $2,200. This year, I’ll match donations up to a total of $500. (Hey, there’s a recession going on!) And remember, this is my last ride. I won’t be coming back to you for donations ever again. (Maybe.)


Celebrating a successful Day 1 ride with Patrick.

Celebrating a successful Day 1 ride with Patrick.

Blame It On Facebook!


Pam Torma and Ike   

Nick Scroggins and Abbey

   TOP: Pam Torma and Ike  BOTTOM: Nick Scroggins and Abbey

I love the different types of connections the new social media allows. Thanks to Facebook, I’ve reconnected with friends from high school and college, not to mention former employees and current business colleagues. What can happen as a result of those connections is amazing. Consider this story:

“Tracy is going to pick up a Boston Terrier puppy for her son to surprise his wife on Christmas!” That was my status update on Facebook two days before Christmas.

Not too much later, my friend and business colleague, Charlotte Scroggins, replied that she loved Boston Terriers and that her family had two of them. As it turned out, the puppy I had located was in Sugar Land, where Charlotte lives, so one thing led to another and I picked up Charlotte to go look at the puppies with me on Christmas Eve. It just happened to be her son Nick’s 24th birthday and he was home visiting with his Boston Terrier, so I guess you can guess the end of the story! As we got into my car with two of the cutest little Boston Terrier puppies you’ll ever see, I told Charlotte to blame it on Facebook!