Founding member of Quality Co-op one of his many accomplishments
Just days before his 100th birthday, John A. Garrett sat on his front porch in Snowdoun. White columns, white rockers and white swings paint a smile across the porch of the lovely red brick home designed by Garrett’s late wife Katherine. Dormers dotting the roof seem like caring, watchful eyes glazed with countless memories of rural living: cows grazing, neighbors passing by, two daughters growing up….
And in the center of that porch sits one white rocker taller than the others, a little more generously cushioned. It’s here where John A. sits on any pleasant afternoon, enjoying his daily ‘toddy time’ and waving warmly to anyone who drives by.
While he modestly said, "There’s not much else to do," make no mistake, John A. is not a man who idly sits watching the world change around him.
"If you become involved in community activities, you’ll have more to do than you’ll know how to get around to," said Garrett who will celebrate his 100th birthday May 10, the date Governor Riley has declared John A. Garrett Day.
When asked about the biggest change in his life, Garrett lifted his cap revealing a head full of glistening white hair. He scratched his head, set his cap to rest again, and looked straight into the distance as he replied simply, "In a hundred years? That’s a big question."
Perhaps it’s a question best answered by looking at the changes he helped bring to the lives of others in the century he’s lived.
Born in Bay Minette, John A. was one of 10 children. His father served as sheriff of Baldwin County. John A. worked every afternoon after school to help with the family farm, feeding the cows and delivering milk into town. John A. still recalls a particular afternoon he was making deliveries. He had a dispute with a neighbor boy who remarked that John A. smelled like a cow.
"I whooped him, busted some milk over his head and told him he could smell like one, too," replied John A., his mouth creeping up at each corner in a mischievous grin.
After high school, John A. – he said the ‘A’ stands for ‘adorable’ – went to Auburn, then known as the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, where he earned his degree in civil engineering in 1936.
"I stayed homesick, mostly for those cows I guess. I traveled back and forth from Auburn to Bay Minette by train anytime I could and I hated to hear that train whistle blow when I didn’t have the money to go home," said John A., adding it took him a long time to get his degree because he worked to pay his way through college.
But during his time in Auburn, John A. eventually found a remedy for his homesickness in the tender smile of Katherine Stowers who became his wife the same year he graduated college.
"She got real sweet with me. Just couldn’t resist me," he said, leaning forward in his chair and peeking over the rim of his glasses for emphasis.
John A. smiled broadly as he talked about the woman he lovingly referred to as Girl. She passed away in 2001, just a few months shy of their 65th wedding anniversary.
Katherine was also a student in Auburn when she and John A. met. After they were married, the couple moved around while John A. worked in civil service. When Katherine’s father fell ill during the 1940s, she returned to Snowdoun to care for him. It was there in south Montgomery County Katherine and John A. settled to raise their daughters, Kitty Walter Dawson and Mary John Byrd. John A. also has three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
During the 1950s, John A. left his civil service job to work as the Director of Commodity Services for Alabama Farm Bureau. In the 1960s, he owned and operated a commercial and industrial construction business. But his love of the land came calling again during the Nixon and Ford administrations when he was asked to serve as Director of the Alabama Farmers Home Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the age of 68, John A. also founded the Alabama Rural Water Association, serving as the association’s executive director for 17 years before retiring in 1994 at age 85.
During the time John A. spent working other jobs, he never lost interest in farming for himself. In fact, he still maintains a herd of about 200 beef cattle on his Snowdoun farm. He also had one of the first dairy cattle operations in the area where the milk never was touched by human hands.
"I had about 250 dairy cattle, about 80 of them really produced. People used to come to see those dairy barns because they couldn’t believe cows would walk up steps," recalled John A.
In addition to his career, John A. has been instrumental in bettering the lives of Alabamians through philanthropy as well. He was one of three people who signed the original bank note to build Goodwill Industries of Central Alabama in Montgomery, a facility serving 18 counties. John A. was again one of three people who selected the site of Camp ASSCA in Jackson’s Gap. Another effort closer to his backyard has been his involvement with the Snowdoun Volunteer Fire Department, and John A. was a founding member of his local Quality Co-op, serving on the Montgomery County board for several years in the 1960s.
Alongside the photographs of farm and family lining the walls of his home are numerous awards John A. received for his service to farming and philanthropic organizations, tokens of appreciation for his years of dedication to improving the lives of others.
John A. was also a popular after-dinner speaker for more than 25 years, bringing his upbeat disposition and witticisms to crowds across the country.
"He would get so lively, Mama would tug on the bottom of his jacket to try to get him to finish talking or move along, but he’d just pause to look down at her and go right on talking," said Mary John.
Because he’s done so much, it’s easy to summarize his century of living as just a list of impressive accomplishments, but there’s no shortage of heart-warming personality to John A. either. He is a gentleman who says he doesn’t have a computer because he doesn’t need one ("I ain’t that big," he said) and loves Wal-Mart because he enjoys a little people-watching.
Today, John A. keeps himself busy as he continues to enjoy meeting with the Rotary Club, Farmers Federation, Cattlemen’s Association, Snowdoun Volunteer Fire Department and other community groups. He also enjoys going to check on his cattle, fishing and going out to lunch.
"The Lord made me where I love other people," he said.
And it’s a good thing, because the flow of visitors stopping by his front porch is proof that lots of people love him.
Kellie Henderson is a freelance writer from Troy.