Driver man leaves event legacy

Published 6:25 pm Saturday, December 19, 2015

Craig Parker stands behind the counter of Driver Variety Store, before a tornado destroyed the store.

Craig Parker stands behind the counter of Driver Variety Store, before a tornado destroyed the store. (Courtesy Photo)

Driver has lost the founder of Driver Days, a two-day fall festival that draws roughly 10,000 people to the rural village.

Craig Parker, 66, died on Dec. 15 after a nine-year battle against cancer. Parker was the second-generation owner of Driver Variety Store, a general store flattened in April 2008 when a tornado roared through Suffolk.

For years, Parker vowed to rebuild the tiny country store on the corner of Kings Highway and Driver Lane. Although he reopened briefly in a nearby vacant storefront, Parker never realized his dream to rebuild.

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Most longtime Driver residents and merchants credit Parker with starting Driver Days, an event second only to Peanut Fest in pulling visitors to the city.

The festival, going into its 23rd year next October, all started with Parker in a gorilla costume, waving down traffic on Nansemond Parkway.

“He was a character,” said Jason Gould, whose family owns Rio Grande Traders. Initially, Parker was trying to woo visitors at a nearby hunting-and-fishing show at Sleepy Hole Park to his shop, Gould said.

“He wanted them to stop and see the town,” Ronnie Gould, owner of Rio Grande. “I think he helped make it as successful as it is today.”

In recent years, the festival has grown to include more than 100 vendors, and Gould’s vintage car show usually features 300 to 400 car buffs showing off their wheels.

Driver Variety Store became a refuge for neighborhood men, recalled Parker’s wife, Cynthia. People would pop in and hang out for an hour, occasionally prompting a wife searching for her husband to call the store.

Parker would routinely extend credit to customers, running a tab that could be settled after payday, Jason Gould said.

“He did that with total strangers,” Parker said. “He was very trusting. He probably gave away more than he sold.”

Even after the store was razed, the property was still a gathering spot for locals. For years, Parker and several cronies would sit out in lawn chairs and chew the fat on sunny days.

In more recent years, Parker started going across the street to his brother’s business, Arthur’s General Store, and sitting on the porch.

“Craig was like a monument around here,” said Ken Parsons, owner of the Knot Hole Station. “Everybody loved talking to him.”

And he loved talking to them, said Jason Gould. Even if you just stopped by Driver Variety Store to grab a candy bar, you could count on a 30-minute chat with Parker.

“He loved talking with people and he made sure everybody who came in store heard about Driver Days,” Jason Gould said. “He was the town crier for Driver Days.”

“He will be missed by a lot of people,” Parsons said. “He was awfully good to all the kids growing up around here.”

Twice, Parker served as the grand marshal for the annual Driver Days parade, Gould added.

Her husband had finished his first draft of a non-fiction book, although it has never been published, Cynthia Parker said.