Biff Parker (Steven Stelmach) 1962-2011

Written by Melissa Golding | Tuesday, Nov 1, 2011

Biff Parker

SXSW staffers were stunned and heartbroken to learn on Monday of the passing of long-time SXSW Community Liaison Biff Parker. Biff passed away in his home in Butler, Pennsylvania from unknown natural causes. Biff joined the SXSW staff in 1989, and played many roles during his twenty plus years of service. Our hearts go out to his girlfriend, SXSW Production Manager Leslie Uppinghouse and the Stelmach family here in Austin.

Some of our staff have shared their memories:

I heard about Biff before I ever met him. He was described as "that guy that can get anything done that needs doing." I knew he'd worked as a tour manager for bands like the Reivers and the Wannabes. I got to know him working the streets during SXSW. Whenever there was a scary situation outside a club, Biff was the one you wanted to have your back. We used to tease him for being so industrious. He always had two or three jobs at once. He saved his money and bought real estate when it was cheap, he owned a string of vending machines, he managed the Caswell House. He had a way with people. People loved him because he would see when you needed help, he wouldn't ask, he would just start helping. - Roland Swenson

Biff was a force of nature – towering and unkempt and angular like Abe Lincoln in Doc Martens and cuff-rolled jeans. Biff never strolled. He walked like a man on a mission hunched forward and pushing through a headwind. There wasn’t an ounce of pretense to him. He rolled up when dragons needed slaying and rolled off when they were gone. Years ago Biff decided to take a break from SXSW and I was asked to dissuade him. My argument fell to pieces when he thanked me sincerely for recommending the Yahoo shares that would help bankroll his sabbatical. Well played indeed, Mr. Parker. - Mike Shea

Biff had many talents, not the least of which was his slightly-off-center sense of humor. For many years, when he phoned me at the SXSW office and the receptionist asked who was calling, he would recite the name of some little-known NBA bench player. More recently, Biff would send me a postcard from some completely random city during the holiday season. As a wedding gift, he gave me a miniature / matchbox-car Zamboni that was decorated with a Boston Red Sox logo (my favorite team). Such a lover of life -- I will miss Biff tremendously. - Hugh Forrest

Always a professional, always good for a laugh. I would have followed him into a burning building without a thought...I'm going to miss him - Cary Caldwell

Biff Parker had an amazing sense of style and the best vintage suits of anyone I've ever known. It was just his thing. But the thing I loved most about him was that he could diffuse a stressful situation (and we have plenty of those) with a funny remark, a laugh and a roll of his eyes. I will miss him terribly. He was one of a kind, that Biff. - Luann Williams

In the short time that I knew him, I picked up on one major thing. Biff had an incredible sense of humor. One that was so dry and sarcastic that sometimes it was hard to determine if he was trying to tell you something important, or pull your leg. Now, I'll never forget one of the last things I heard him say in the office. He had been out for lunch, and came back with a big, orange safety cone and sat it next to a co-worker's desk. He told the co-worker he spotted it while he was out and said that it was ours from the past season, and it had been overlooked, so he was bringing it back. When the co-worker asked if he was sure it was ours, Biff replied with, "Yeah, usually when it has the big letters S-X-S-W painted on it, that's what it means, but I could be wrong." - Elliott Usrey

If there was a tough job ahead, Biff was always the guy who got it done. There are too many times to even recall how he would just see a need, rope in others on the spot, and fill it, and have you laughing about it before the night was over. He was industrious and kind, resourceful and perceptive. Even though he did so many things for us at SXSW, I will always remember the things he did for me personally -- like "borrowing" champagne flutes from the Caswell House for my wedding in 1992, and, early one Christmas morning, putting up a basketball hoop that had one of those chutes that spits the ball back out for my then-small daughter. It even had a bow tied on it. We both thanked Biff, but he shrugged and said it must have been Santa. Swear to God, that's how he was. - Roseana Auten

Biff and I have worked for 10+ years together on SXSW dealings. We bonded over time on hockey talk and a love of the New Jersey Devils (though my love for the Devils has faded in the past few years). Biff's living much of the year in Pittsburg, yet his great dislike for the Pittsburg Penguins was always interesting to me. We roomed together during SXSW in the past, we fought the good fight together for the best SXSW we could help create and in a few instances we even fought with each other (always working it out of course). I appreciated Biff's cool head but that he was also passionate and had his limits. In the end, Biff and I were friends, he was a respected colleague and he will be fondly remembered. I'm deeply saddened at Biff's passing. - Scott McNearney

Biff Parker helped me in many ways over the years, especially when I had to deal with particularly needy or entitled people. My most clear recollection, though, is of the year that we first began blocking off streets downtown during SXSW Music. Biff was running around putting out fires everywhere because he was the main point of contact between SXSW and the city in regards to the roadblocks. I got a call that year from a downtown restaurant owner I had sweet-talked into providing us with some of her delicious food, even though she didn't need the business. English was her second language so it took me some time to understand that a couple of police officers wouldn't let her into her parking lot, which she was understandably upset about. I immediately called Biff and explained the situation. He told me the roadblock had been set up by mistake and that he would take care of it. The best part was his tone of voice – disappointment that this poor old lady had to deal with someone else's mistake and a sense of urgency to get it fixed. It didn't matter to him that she wasn't a big client, but it did matter that someone had messed up and he wanted her to know that he'd take care of it right away. We laughed about it later, but I knew I could just call Biff and he'd know what to do. I'll really miss that. - Tammy Lynn Gilmore

Biff Parker is one of the greatest human beings I have ever had the pleasure to associate myself with. He exemplifies every quality a person should exhibit. He sets the standard of professionalism and character that everyone should strive to achieve. There are not enough words in the English language to fully describe the kind of person he is. I will always value his friendship and his teachings. I'll see you when I see you buddy. - Connor Tester

There from my beginning at SX in '89. Could count on him no matter what if you were in a jam. Compassionate yet realistic. Great McGuyver instincts.He was snappy dresser by SX office standards with his retro suits and pompadour. I dressed up as Biff one Halloween at the office. He had moved to PA and left one of his trademark bowling shirts in his office closet. With my hair pushed into shape, his distinctive walk and that shirt, no one had much trouble figuring out who I was that year. One of his quirk phases which always made me smile was his wristband collection, displayed on his wrists. Seemed like he was going for the world record for simultaneous wearing of or something. In the pre-mobile phone days Biff's voice on the walkie talkies got scratchier and fainter as the music festival wore on. By the last night it would be the faintest whisper, interpreted by only the most experienced staffers. Like Leslie now, he was one of the last voices you would hear still at work on the airwaves in the wee hours of the Festival nights. Fond memories of dressing up in a poofy petticoated dress to deliver a 70th birthday cake with Biff to the denmother of JFK assassinologists, Mary Ferrell. We rolled out the cake in the midst of a re-creation of Jack Ruby's Carousel Club and swing danced to the Naughty Ones to help provide authenticity to the atmosphere. What a fine dancer he was! As far as I know, he was never a smoker. Regardless, it was near impossible for me to light my own cigarette in his presence. He'd have a lighter out and in position before my cig even made it to my mouth. He exuded a non-sexist chivalrous vibe. An example of how much one can accomplish by being nice, generally helpful, and treating others with respect. I'm pretty sure he was a prime motivator in the US vs. Canada roller hockey in the cavernous exhibit halls when SX finally moved into the newly-built convention center. I love Biff. I will miss the flavor he injected into the sausage that is life. Heart hugs to all his friends and loved ones! - Erin McArthur

It was the Opening Night of SXSW 2003. At the time I felt I was familiar with the SXSW history, including the former employees who had since departed. On this particular Opening Night I had a million things to do and a million things I was behind in doing. At approximately 5 p.m. that evening, Louis Black calls me on the SXSW cell and says "I'm gonna have Biff hang out with you tonight." I was like "Biff? Who is Biff?" I'd been working in the SXSW offices for five years, and never met or heard of a guy named Biff. Anyway, at around 6 p.m., this tall thin guy shows up at the Austin Convention Center asking for me. It was Biff. "Who is this guy?" "Am I supposed to keep an eye on him, or is he supposed to keep an eye on me?" "How are we supposed to help each other tonight?" Little did I realize that this guy had much more SXSW experience than me, but he never acted superior. Biff was simply there to be friendly and helpful. It occurred to me: this is why I'd never heard people in the office moaning about some former employee named Biff; it was because he was a nice guy! Halfway through that night, we both agreed that we'd get more accomplished solo rather than together, so we split up. I never knew if I'd ever see Biff again, but was thrilled when he came back to work at SXSW on a more permanent basis. I just remembered his great energy, and his kind spirit. Having him in the office was a great gift to the otherwise stressful environment. During SXSW 2011, I sat down to watch the documentary about the history of the event. And, I swear to God: few moments made me smile more than the sight of a young Biff working the music festival. It drove home this idea for me that Biff was woven into the fabric of SXSW. - Matt Dentler

You always knew when Biff was in the room. His voice had a way of cutting through, and his bullhorn of a laugh, which he used often, made you like the guy immediately. For many of us, he was always someone you could count on to go the extra mile to solve a problem or lend a hand. It truly sucks that we suddenly have to write about him in the past tense. Biff was virtually ubiquitous; he touched so many people's lives here, and this shocking news pummeled us all. It's almost unfathomable to think of SXSW, or Austin, without him. - Jeff McCord

I was so sorry to hear about Biff. I only worked with him during the 2010 SXSW but he was someone I actually looked forward to working to working with. He was always helpful, honest, gracious, tenacious and professional as well as just being a nice, friendly guy. Not to be boring, but I enjoyed hearing him discuss safety, crowds, Austin city infrastructure and other aspects of his job. Although he wasn’t that amused at the time, we both thought the conversation was a little funny when called me outside to the front of the Four Seasons during the 2010 SXSW where he sternly reprimanded me for not informing the police in advance of chartering a helicopter to fly as low as possible just over the crowded Austin streets at 8PM in the middle of SXSW Music. The conversation ended with an apology from me and a mutual pat on the back agreeing not to do it again. He was a good guy and I’m going to miss him. - Sam Heineman

The first year I started at SXSW in 1996, I met Biff Parker. Quick, hilarious, and with an unabashed sense of style, Biff convinced me that I needed to see Emergency Broadcast Network (EBN), a multimedia performance group he had worked hard to bring to SXSW. I was absolutely floored! Seeing EBN's original and futuristic performance was the highlight of my year. I immediately realized that Biff was the coolest guy on the planet. I will miss you Biff. - Scott Wilcox

Those of us who knew him are blessed beyond words. - Shawn O'Keefe

I'll remember Biff for a lot of things like how he would have that stern look on his face while he listened intently to what you said, work out a solution and if you were lucky, break into the greatest smile. But mostly I'll remember seeing he and Leslie having lunch together, sitting outside or on a couch or at a conference table talking quietly. Maintaining a long distance relationship can be really hard and the largest chunk of time that Biff spent in Austin was when we were at our busiest and most stressed. I loved that they managed to snatch a few minutes in the middle of the day to spend together before getting pulled back into the vortex. I'll sorely miss the snappiest dresser at SXSW. - Elizabeth Derczo

Biff was the consummate professional and solid as a rock. When you were working on something with him, you never had to worry that it would be done right and when you called him with a problem, he was already 5 steps ahead of you in the process of solving it. But beyond that, he was just an absolute sweetheart of a guy, who never had an unkind word for anyone and he will be truly missed. - Rebecca Feferman

You know how people say that someone was the coolest person they knew whenever they pass away? It may or may not always be true. Biff was absolutely the coolest guy I knew. He could have a conversation with anyone about anything and appear to be an expert on everything. Whether we were talking about how terrible my hometown sports teams were or arguing about which places had the best food, he was always a joy to be around. He could also rock a suit on a golf cart in the middle of SXSW like no other. He will be missed like no other. - James Shinault

I was shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a long time co-worker and friend. Biff Parker and I worked a lot of long, but entertaining, hours together back in the early days of the festival. Always quick to take you under his wing, Biff exemplified a nurturing sense of leadership uncommon in the modern workplace. He cared about his job, but cared about his co-workers even more. He is already missed. Rest in Peace, my dear friend. - John Rodriguez

Biff was my SXSW partner. We read each others minds and seemed to always be on the same page. His humor kept me going in our toughest times, and I will always be indebted to him. He was an incredible man with an enormous ability to work and persevere with dignity and pride. I miss him already. - Carlyne Majer

Biff used to bust my chops for quitting general contracting and working for SXSW. With a big smile, he'd say I was getting soft. AND he was the snazziest dresser in this whole organization. - Frank Schaefer

Biff was always right where you needed him, no matter what. He was a hero in that way. However, my most cherished time spent with him was when he would tell me stories of "the way things used to be" whether in Austin or at SXSW, while I fixed something on his computer for the umpteenth time. After a few years of tinkering with his computer nearly every time he was in town, I hinted that maybe it was time for an upgrade. He looked at me thoughtfully for a minute, the way he would were I debating a plan for world peace, placed his hand on my shoulder and said, "Nah, I enjoy our chats." Me too, Biff. Me too. - Melissa Golding

One thing is certain: anyone who ever met Biff Parker won't easily forget him. Calm, but seemingly always in a hurry, serious-minded but playful, an instant friend who kept his distance, this man not so much embodied contradiction as made it entirely irrelevant, he was a question that didn't need an answer – yin and yang. Biff was someone anyone was always happy to have on their team because he Knew Things and Got Things Done. He liked to make others look good and lived to serve people - but he was his own master and answered to no one. Biff was a stylish dresser, yet utterly lacking in vanity or pretension. Biff hated to spend money (he acquired a small real estate empire), but was deeply generous, bankrolling friends' recordings and working on projects he believed in for little or no money and he spent years delivering meals on wheels. Biff knew all about food and food service, but I spent over a week with him in St. Louis one time where he subsisted entirely on summer sausage. (Did I mention that he hated to spend money?) He was the ultimate peace-maker, but more than once I saw him ready to throw a punch... Thanks for the company, friend. It was a hell of a ride. - Brent Grulke

I learned more from Biff about how to be a producer and a person than I will ever have the chance to tell him. He was the guy who would walk into a difficult situation, immediately assess it, and speak to everyone involved straight up and on their level. He would diffuse the problem, help move it towards a solution (if it had one), and leave everyone feeling better for the conversation - more able to go forward and make the show happen. He was funny, and kind, and rocked life from his distinct point of view. In this industry, one of the gifts we get is knowing someone that you are happy to see 100% of the time, decades after you met him. Biff was that guy. I also still own a couple of 45's he put out back in the day on BiffCo records that still absolutely kick ass. Godspeed, Biff. - Mike Henry, Proprietor / Talent Buyer, ND Austin

As many others here have noted, Biff was a rare combination of smart, totally unflappable, and always fun to be around. Because he could relate to and deal with any situation, he was a charter member of the SXSW road team for out of town events. A couple of early vivid memories from that: One year at the Kennedy assassination symposium in Dallas, Biff was the doorman/barker at a send-up of Jack Ruby's 1960s-era burlesque club, as part of an evening event we did. It was a perfect role for him -- really tall hair and a flashy tuxedo -- and I think I kind of saw him that way ever since. A couple of years later (Portland, I think), for some reason we were in Biff's hotel room while he was shaving. My son Zeke was about three, had never seen such a thing, and was totally in awe. It was a sort of archetypal father-son scene, and Biff seemed tickled at it. We'll all miss him. - Nick Barbaro

biff was to our family one of the most sincere friends anyone could ever have to call their friend! we met when he moved to butler, pa. at that time i said to him (them)...oh we really are supposed to be friends....and that we all were! we were next door neighbors for years. biff was just such a good guy with an enourmous heart. this is so hard and sad...because biff never said good bye to us...only "see ya soon or talk to ya soon". he is so terribly missed and dear sweet friend.... - Cindy Walters

Photo by Charni Silk