Tony Parrent was in graduate school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, studying physics and systems management when he first met Mary Ann Cutler. The dark haired, blue-eyed Mary Ann was in a year-long, post-baccalaureate dietetic internship in Vanderbilt University Hospital’s food system at the time.
“There was food in the cafeteria on campus, but my buddies and I heard that there was good food over at Vanderbilt Hospital. So several of my physics friends and I go over, and – lo and behold – we found several nice, attractive young ladies over there, in nursing and dietetics and…” Tony remembers with a big grin, looking over at his wife. Watching her husband with stars in her eyes, Mary Ann giggles just a few feet away. More than 61 years after their first meeting, it’s clear the two are still very much in love.
“Learning to talk” in Mississippi
“I was born in Teaneck, New Jersey, but I learned to talk in Mississippi,” Mary Ann says with her trademark Southern drawl. Her family originally lived in New Jersey to be close to Mary Ann’s father’s parents, but moved back to Mississippi as the Great Depression roared on.
“Times were pretty hard,” Mary Ann describes. “So we moved back to my mother’s home to live with her parents. It was a three-generation house in a little town called Egypt, Mississippi. North Mississippi – cotton country.”
The school Mary Ann attended for most of her youth, like the town it was based in, was small and sparsely populated. County schools were consolidated, so Egypt School closed and Mary Ann went to Okolona School seven miles away for grades 8 through 11. When Mary Ann’s father, a hospital administrator, was asked to open a new hospital in West Point, Mississippi, the family picked up and moved there during Mary Ann’s senior year of high school. “It wasn’t easy, but it was necessary,” she explains. In the spring of 1954, she graduated from West Point High School.
Immediately afterward, she went to the Mississippi State College for Women, where she majored in nutrition and learned about dietetics in hospitals. She also served as a nurse’s aide in the hospitals where her father had worked. Mary Ann graduated from college in 1958. The internship at Vanderbilt came next.
Meanwhile, in Kentucky…
Tony was born in Frankfort, Kentucky, and “lived almost next door to the capitol.” He graduated from Frankfort High School in 1954, the very same school his mother attended before him. (Years later, he would be inducted into the school’s collection of distinguished alumni on the 100th anniversary of the date his mother graduated from Frankfort High!)
After high school, Tony went on to study math and physics at Eastern Kentucky University, where he not only served as principal percussionist in the band and orchestra, but also graduated at the top of his class. His next step, and the one that led him to the love of his life, was graduate school in Nashville, Tennessee.
A chance meeting turns into forever
Mary Ann and Tony met at Vanderbilt Hospital just before Christmas in 1958. Their chemistry was instant and palpable. “We talked about how we were going home for Christmas – Kentucky for him, Mississippi for me,” Mary Ann says. “When we got back after Christmas and got serious, we had our first date in February.”
“February 7th,” Tony chimes in.
“February 7th,” Mary Ann agrees, smiling. “We saw the movie Up Periscope with James Garner. By June, we were engaged. And in September, we were married.”
“When you know, you know,” Tony beams.
The two were wed on September 9, 1959.
“9-9-59,” Tony says proudly.
A new direction
After living in Nashville for a couple of years and having finished his education, Tony was ready to explore more of what was waiting for him in the professional world. He and Mary Ann spoke with many of their personal contacts, making connections that might impact Tony’s career for the better. One of Tony’s former professors knew of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, and Tony soon found his foot in the door of an extraordinary possibility.
“He hadn’t planned to be Navy connected at all,” Mary Ann recalls. While he wasn’t in the Navy proper, Tony became a scientist for that branch of the military. Soon, he was the Principal System Safety Engineer for Underwater Weapons at the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center. He developed safety design requirements and testing protocols to establish confidence for developing naval weapon systems – “not only if they were safe to manufacture, but if they were safe to handle, safe for sailors to use, and safe to be on our ships,” Tony says.
His work as a physicist introduced him to a future role as the Director of the Office of Systems Safety for Underwater Weapons for 22 years. In that position, he also served as the U.S. Navy member and chairman of several NATO working groups regarding the safety and suitability of weapons for NATO service use.
Exploring the world together
Tony traveled extensively for his job. “Mary Ann decided she wasn’t going to let me travel around the world if she wasn’t going with me,” Tony laughs.
“I was working with home health after my time [as chief medical dietitian] at Washington Adventist Hospital,” Mary Ann adds. “Since it was a part-time job, I could take off and go with him when he went on his trips.”
The couple saw many fascinating places throughout the world, including England, Australia, and Benbecula, an island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. After retirement, when Tony started his own business consulting for companies and countries doing the same kind of work he had done for much of his career, he and Mary Ann traveled to Hong Kong, Singapore, and other exciting destinations.
Once the Parrents were both retired from work, though, they decided they weren’t quite finished with their traveling days. Instead, they intended to focus on domestic trips instead of the international ones they had taken for so long.
“We began traveling about six months out of the year for about seven or eight years. We got to see a lot of places that we’d heard about, knew about, and knew people from, but had never been to,” Tony recalls. They saw most of the 50 states, including New Mexico, southern California, Arizona, New York, and Florida, and spent their 50th wedding anniversary with their niece in Hawaii.
Making a choice for the future
Amid their frequent journeys across the United States, the Parrents made time for a new and very important adventure in their lives together: seeking a retirement community where they could both settle and feel happy and at home.
The couple looked at communities in Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, but were most impressed by The Forest at Duke. “By our second visit here, people in the cafeteria already called us by our names. It’s amazing,” Tony says.
He and Mary Ann admit it would have been much more convenient to have chosen a retirement community in Maryland, where they actually lived for almost 60 years of their life together. In fact, they had their eyes fixed on one very close to home, and even had personal connections there. However, the community was home to several thousand residents and felt a bit impersonal and overwhelming.
Beyond the charming and friendly aspect of The Forest, the Parrents were also attracted to Durham by the first-class healthcare system, The Forest’s continuum of care, and the fact that the couple has family in the area.
Two places to call home
Mary Ann and Tony actually maintain two residences – one at The Forest, and their long-time house in Silver Spring, Maryland. “We’re finding ourselves saying, ‘Let’s go home,’ and then we look at each other and ask, ‘Which home do you mean?’” Tony shares with a laugh.
“This is home,” he adds.
“Getting to be, for sure,” Mary Ann chimes in, smiling.
“We’re having a hard time breaking the depth of our past connections,” Tony explains about their dual living situations. “We’ve been in our home 53 years. We’ve had 38 different neighbors either right next door, across the street, or around us over that period of time.”
“We were the young folks when we bought the house,” Mary Ann says with a knowing chuckle. “And we have loved that house. I think that’s the hardest part. We never had to call a plumber or an electrician or anybody to fix anything [that needed repairing], because [Tony] could do all of that stuff. We know every inch of the house and just love it.”
“Now, when we walk in here [to The Forest], some of our friends look at their watches and say, ‘Oh! How many minutes are you staying this time?!’” Tony laughs, Mary Ann joining him.
Despite the challenges the split between two homes can sometimes bring, the Parrents really do find that The Forest is the right fit for them. “We have met so many people from all kinds of places and backgrounds,” Tony explains. “In confirmation of what we thought, this place invites you to enjoy life and talk to other people about who they are and what they’ve done and where they’ve been. We tell all of our friends about The Forest. We’ve found that this is like home to us.”
What is the secret to making a marriage last? According to Tony and Mary Ann, mutual respect and common interests are a great place to start. “Any chorus or choir that I’ve directed, she’s always been a part of that,” Tony explains.
In music ventures, Tony has served as the Director of Band & Chorus for the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Director of Music for the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church in Maryland, and Director of the Festival Choral Society in Montgomery County, Maryland – all with Mary Ann’s sweet voice accompanying him.
The love between the Parrents remains evident today, more than 60 years after wedding bells rang in the church where they were married. Here at The Forest, it’s not uncommon to see the two lovebirds holding hands as they make their way down a hallway or to catch a glimpse of Tony with his hand along the small of Mary Ann’s back as he lovingly ushers her across campus.
What do they love the most about each other after all these years? “It’s her lovingkindness,” Tony’s eyes glisten as he looks over at his bride. “I really think so.”
“I could say that about him, too,” Mary Ann responds in kind, a sweet smile spreading across her face. “He’s just so fair and kind to everybody.”
Near and far
Here in Durham and away in Silver Spring, Mary Ann and Tony continue to spread their contagious joy and love all around. Their reputations often precede them – even if you don’t know their faces, you probably know their names, and if you’ve heard of “the Parrents,” you’ve likely heard only good things.
The lovingkindness they’ve brought to their hometown for many decades is something The Forest is excited to welcome into its own community for years to come. What a difference your presence here has and will continue to make, dear Parrents! Your neighbors in Durham are so pleased to have you!
—Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist
Header image: The Parrents in 2010.