The Parrish Family —Community Call and Response

Like many partnerships, Ted and Catherine Parrish find a comfortable balance between passion and pragmatism. So when Catherine first felt called to move from their established and relatively comfortable life in a diverse Chicago neighborhood to a small, rural town in southwestern Wisconsin, it took Ted and their two children a few years to come fully on board with her vision.

used guitar

The “city” of Viroqua had been brought to their attention first through the Waldorf School community as several friends from their Chicago area Waldorf School had migrated over to the Waldorf School in Viroqua in 2002. Longing for a quieter life set in a pastoral landscape, Catherine was quickly sold on a move, but Ted took a more realistic approach. Questions like “How would we do that?” “Where would we work?” in addition to firmly established jobs at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago kept them planted in the city for several years to follow.

Over the ensuing years, they visited friends in the Driftless region with increasing frequency and, as the pressures of city life began to wear on them, hopes for a move began to move beyond Catherine. After their class teacher left their Waldorf School and the school relocated to a less desirable area, the dream took on new urgency, but they were having no luck finding suitable work in Viroqua. After months of frustrated effort, Catherine suggested that they “appeal to Ganesh” —Hindu deity and remover of obstacles. Low and behold, the very next day they received a call from one of their old Chicago friends, now living in Viroqua, who was thinking about opening a restaurant and was wondering if Ted would be interested in helping her get it off the ground. Though he had not had professional cooking experience in more than 20 years, Ted leaped at the opportunity.

While cooking made the initial move possible, there were a few more obstacles to consider before their transition would be complete. First, the Parrishes brought extraordinary musical experience and talent to the area and wanted to be able to share their gifts with their new community, and second, their family is atypical for a small rural town settled by Norwegians and Germans. Ted and Catherine have two adopted children of African-American decent, the eldest of whom is autistic. Concerns about whether their children would fit in and feel accepted were present, if not outright barriers.

The first obstacle was cleared in less than a year when Ted and Catherine opened a small shop in a studio space, giving lessons and renting instruments during time off from the restaurant. With expertise developed during his days at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, Ted was quickly able to develop strong relationships with the music teachers in Viroqua, building a reputable instrument-rental program as well as an outlet for the many people hungry to play music in the community.

Catherine give flute lessons to a young student

Catherine gives flute lessons to a young student

The second obstacle has been a somewhat more challenging, and more ongoing project. While the Parrish children have been largely welcomed and accepted in the community, it has often fallen on the shoulders of Ted and Catherine (and even, at times, the children themselves) to bring awareness to a small and racially homogeneous community regarding the experience of difference. Though there were a few isolated middle-school incidents —some teasing, some racism, some issues regarding adoption— the community has on the whole been warm and welcoming to the family, and for the most part they have been happily integrated into it. Ironically, the more challenging aspects of addressing “difference” have come from the community’s overriding desire to be accepting and sidestepping the acknowledgement of difference in an effort to be polite. Recognizing differences and the subtle privileges that come with being part of a dominant culture can create awkward conversations along with feelings shame or guilt that most people would rather avoid.

Creativity runs in the family: Jaali in her crafting studio

Creativity runs in the family: daughter Jaali in her crafting studio

The Parrish’s efforts to raise awareness of those who live on the margins can at times feel lonely or fruitless, but because they live in a small and willing community, they have frequent opportunities for conversation. It is enough of an opening, and the family has done their best to capitalize on the opportunities for growth when they arise. Catherine says that she sees the idea of community as “a way to be more inclusive of those in the margins: that expansion calls on the people in power to be willing to be more conscious and dedicated —to care.

 “The socially gifted people have to be even more conscious of those who are more uncomfortable. “Typical” people need to be more aware of those who are disabled. The onus should not always be on those who are struggling.” But, she says, “At least here people are having those conversations.”

 In an effort to keep the conversation alive, the family has called upon the public —kids and adults alike— to come in and play games with their autistic son, Julius; they have integrated him into the local Waldorf School, in addition to raising awareness of black history and politics whenever possible —all with positive response. In the end, theirs is a connected dance of reciprocity requiring trust, forgiveness, commitment and love on all parts —a connectedness that is demanded as part of a smaller community and that might be more easily avoided in a larger setting.

 (Photo credit: Jim Luhning)

Julius, a prolific painter, at work in his studio. (Photo credit: Jim Luhning)

Through their work and their family, the Parrishes see the idea of community manifested in reciprocal relationships. Ted’s days as a cook gave way to a full time gig with their flourishing music business on Main Street back in 2009. Known for their collection of small guitars, ukuleles, and world instruments, they now draw customers from all across the country. But the largest part of their business is still tied to serving the community in which they live —teaching more than 75 students per week, running a thriving instrument rental program with nearly 200 instruments, running a World Music Series that brings world-class performers to their rural town of 4500 people, and trying to contribute to every small-town fundraiser that they can. Additionally, they persevere with gentle efforts to bring more recognition of and conversation about difference to a relatively homogeneous region. Nevertheless, while they recognize the gifts they have brought to their new home, they simultaneously appreciate what they have received in return, as they rely on their new community to support their business, their vision, and their family on a daily basis. In the end, it is an ongoing melody of call and response.

The Parrish family has enriched the musical culture in Viroqua.

The Parrish family has enriched the musical culture in Viroqua.

Old-timey class


The shop is rich in color and culture

The shop is rich in color and culture


Photo Credit: Jim Luhning

Photo Credit: Jim Luhning










  1. Ted is, hands downs, the best music teacher I have ever had.

    • I believe there are many who would agree with your assessment, Jack!

  2. So very proud of all of you! You are amazing. xoxo

  3. One of your very best blogs ever, Sheila, uplifting and tender – thank you!

  4. So nice to hear how you are openly addressing differences of all types! As the parent of a song with autism, I feel like educating the neuro-typical community about neuro-differences is the new frontier that has to be crossed in order to truly create communities that can accept and appreciate people who are wired differently. Thanks for doing what you do!!


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