Jim Parkhill was my oldest friend in Florida and they don't come any better.
He was the first man I met here 37 years ago when Nelson Poynter hired me to move down from the Washington Post and succeed him in running the St. Petersburg Times.
I asked Nelson the name of a construction firm that might renovate and greatly enlarge the small house I bought in St. Petersburg and do it fast so I could move my family down from D.C. Mr. Poynter instantly recommended a one-man construction firm named Jim Parkhill, who seemed to be doing all the most demanding work for the Times.
I took one look at that big, bald, rugged, level-eyed builder with can-do written all across his broad back, and I placed the life I was going to live in Florida in his hands.
"You're the architect,'' I told him. "Just bust out both ends of the existing house and build them out to the property line. Put a dining room and a bigger kitchen on the north end and a living room-bedroom apartment on the south. And, oh yes, enlarge the upstairs bedroom and bath while you're at it."
He asked if he could at least hire a draftsman. I said okay. Jim took over the job from there, all by himself, with a four-month deadline.
My wife flew down from Washington with me twice to watch Jim's construction. The first time she asked him to knock down an internal wall separating the living room and the Florida room, which he did. On her second visit, she noticed he had knocked down most of the wall but had left two columns near each end of it standing.
"No, no, Jim," she said. "I want both of those columns knocked out of there, too, so we'll have one big room."
"I can do that, Mrs. Patterson," Parkhill replied agreeably, "but the house will fall down."
She withdrew. The columns remain.
Jim called me a couple of times long distance to say I'd better come down and select the doors, pick floor coverings, choose tile, bathroom hardware, cupboard knobs. "I can't get away," I told him most times. "You pick 'em. Whatever you would pick for your house will be fine for mine."
So, in a very real sense, Jim shaped the 37 years I've lived happily in Florida to his specifications. And with his git-'er-done drive, he got the huge job done in four months on his own with minimum help from me. He still found time on weekends to indulge his gentle recreations such as hunting wild hogs.
We also took time to become fast friends. We exchanged notes last Christmas, and I told him how much I'd like him to come once more by my house that he built - and where I still live - and see what a happy home his big hands put together for the Patterson family. But I think he knew. Every plank he sawed and every nail he drove framed our lives with his vision and warmed them with his friendship.
Aside from the personal, our professional lives stayed close. His straight talk made both memorable. After he completed my house, I contracted with him to renovate the Times bureau in Clearwater, which was then housed in an old frame building across the street from the County Courthouse. While he was sledge-hammering out one rotted wall, I asked his views on the general condition of the place.
"I can put on some patches," he said, "but you better start building somewhere else. The only thing keeping this place together is the termites are holding hands."
Jim Parkhill and a few other achievers like him built this America of ours. He looked at problems and saw opportunities. He listened to your deadlines and set his own shorter. He assumed he could do anything, and he did. And did it right. He didn't doubt, he didn't scare, he didn't quit. He dared, and he prevailed.
We'll not see another Jim. But he left his example and thus he showed us how, with luck, we can raise a few more pillars like him so the house won't fall down.
James Warren Parkhill
Born: Nov. 26, 1924
Died: Sept. 4, 2009
Survivors: Wife, Mary Frances; daughter, Sandra Parkhill; stepsons, Dale (Edie) Mastry, Larry (Nancy) Mastry and six grandchildren.
Mr. Parkhill was born in Durant, Okla., and grew up in Alexandria, La. He settled in St. Petersburg after World War II and worked as a general contractor. He and his wife moved to a home he built along the Withlacoochee River in eastern Hernando County in the early 1980s, and while in Hernando he served on the Hernando County Planning and Zoning Commission and the East Hernando Fire District Advisory Board. The couple moved back to Pinellas County, in Seminole, in 1997.