News A Lifetime Of Service

A Lifetime Of Service

A Lifetime Of Service
September 15, 2005 |

At 96, some people might think a man’s work was just about done. But John A. Garrett of Montgomery isn’t a typical man, and the fruits of his work have lived long past his retirement. His friends describe him as a true Southern gentleman. His reputation as a great storyteller is legendary, as is his ranking among the most influential men who shaped rural Alabama.Garrett’s list of accomplishments is enough to fill an entire magazine. But the most revealing part of his life isn’t the numerous awards and plaques that fill the walls of his home in Snowdoun, it’s the lives he touched.An early leader in the Alabama Farmers Federation, Garrett served as president of the Montgomery County Federation and was a longtime county board member. In the 1950s, he worked as the Federation’s director of organization for dairying and gained a reputation for making sure dairy farmers received top dollar for their milk. In 1971, he received the Federation’s 50th Anniversary Award for Outstanding Contributions to Alabama Agriculture.He served as state director of the Farmers Home Administration (now called Rural Development) from 1969 to 1977. He was executive vice president of the Alabama Rural Water Association, an organization that now awards annual scholarships in his honor. He was a board member for the National Rural Rehabilitation Corp. and National Rural Water Association and served as secretary/treasurer for Alabama Rural Rehabilitation Corp. By all accounts, he was a driving force in bringing water to many rural residents, changing the lives and fortunes of rural Alabamians forever.”We were trying to get water in rural areas,” he recalled. “We would get commitments from people who would agree as a group and put up the money to get the water lines through. Having water made a big difference in people’s lives.”Garrett said there were lots of places in Alabama where well water wasn’t available or was unsuitable for drinking.”Having good water makes a lot of difference in your quality of life or the ability to just live in an area,” he said. “I can remember times when people had to haul water to their house in 10-gallon cans. Having water gave them more opportunities and in some cases let them continue to live in the country.”But Garrett’s desire to help his fellow man went far beyond the dirt roads of rural Alabama. He helped establish Camp ASCCA, a camp for children with disabilities located in Tallapoosa County. He was chairman of the Livestock and Agriculture Committee for the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce and is a past chairman of the Montgomery Area Council on Aging. He helped establish the Snowdoun Volunteer Fire Department and served as the organization’s president. He served as chairman of Central Alabama Goodwill Industries and was among three people who personally signed a bank note for construction of the organization’s first building in Montgomery. He has been a Rotarian for more than 30 years and is a former president of the Montgomery Rotary Club. He served as governor for Rotary District 688 in 1977-78 and is a Paul Harris Fellow. A Baldwin County native, Garrett was one of 10 children. His desire for an education led him to Auburn where he received a degree in civil engineering and met his wife of 64 years, Katherine Stowers of Snowdoun. They settled in her home community and created Cherokee Farms, a name they chose because of the wild Cherokee roses that bloomed around the farm. The couple had two daughters, Mary John Garrett Byrd and Kitty Walter Garrett Dawson, both of Montgomery.Although his wife passed away four years ago, Garrett’s face still lights up when he speaks of her and affectionately calls her “Girl.” He jokingly says she was lucky to have him, but then quickly points out, “She was one of a kind, and she put up with a lot from me.”Garrett ran a dairy farm in Snowdoun until modern machinery and labor costs caused him to switch to beef cattle. He operated a building construction business for about 10 years prior to his work with Farmers Home Administration. In addition to his work and duties as a public servant, he still found time to teach Sunday school at Snowdoun United Methodist Church and made after-dinner speeches in just about every state.Reflecting back on nearly a hundred years of living, Garrett said he has no regrets and has done everything he ever wanted to do. He is a businessman, farmer, orator, statesman, humanitarian, husband, father and friend. And his secret for staying young? With wisdom laced by humor in a memo to a friend several years ago, he wrote: “Live honestly, eat slowly, sleep sufficiently, work industrially, worship faithfully and lie about your age.”His admirers have a hard time describing him in a few words, but will tell you, he’s one of a kind.Anne Athey Payne of Montgomery, whose parents Whit and Mildred Athey were prominent leaders in Alabama’s beef cattle industry, recalls hearing Garrett speak when she was a child, and later, admiring him even more as an adult.”He is the most effortless speaker I’ve ever heard,” Payne said. “People would go to meetings just to hear him speak. He could reel off jokes better than anyone. At one meeting, our speaker didn’t show up, and he was asked to speak — he kept us entertained for 45 minutes.”Payne calls Garrett one of the most dynamic people rural Montgomery and rural Alabama has ever known.”Everyone in rural Alabama owes him a tremendous thanks,” Payne said. “There is no one who has given more to rural Alabama and our entire state. He has worked for so many organizations and given back so much to our communities. He is one of my heroes — I have always admired him greatly.”Winston Pirtle shares those same feelings. He grew up and still lives just down the road from Garrett. Pirtle’s father, the late W.H. “Hocker” Pirtle, was a close friend of Garrett, and together they worked on several projects that benefited the Montgomery area, particularly the Snowdoun community. Winston Pirtle affectionately calls him “Mr. John A.””Mr. John A. had a lot of savvy about him — he could ease around and get things done,” Pirtle said.
“People would say something couldn’t be done — like getting water to parts of rural Montgomery — but they did it,” Pirtle recalls of the work Garrett and his father did. “Mr. John A. was quick-witted and humorous. He used his charm to help get things done that benefited a lot of people.”Pirtle described Garrett as “a good old country boy,” but added that Garrett also had a lot of polish and class and could talk to anyone about almost any topic. “From a farm hand to the highest politician, he could switch gears in an instant and make it work. He was a great negotiator,” Pirtle said.Garrett doesn’t like to talk too much about himself, but when asked, he reflects on his accomplishments as things everyone should strive for. He is often asked what it takes be successful. He sometimes chooses to answer it with one of his favorite sayings:”To be successful, you should resolve to do four things: drink, swear, steal and lie every day,” he wrote in a memo to a friend. “Drink from the fountain of friendship and happiness. Swear to do your job a little bit better. Steal a little time to do an act of kindness for someone, and don’t expect anything in return. Lie down at night and thank God you live in a free country and pledge to do your part to keep it free.”

View Related Articles