Greers Ferry stalwart had passion for work, nature

By Angela Spencer Published July 13, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Carl Garner, resident engineer at Greers Ferry Lake, was a community leader who was involved in the preservation of Greers Ferry Lake for more than 50 years. In this 2009 photo, he shows some of the nature photos he has taken. Garner died July 6 at the age of 99.

William “Carl” Garner, the man who was the resident engineer at Greers Ferry Lake for decades, died July 6 at age 99. Garner was known in the community as a nature lover who was interested and active in the preservation of Greers Ferry Lake.

“We lost a legend,” said Billy Lindsey, managing partner of Lindsey’s Resort. “It’s one of those losses in life we look at and think that it’s the end of an era, an end of a breed.”

Garner was born June 1, 1915, in Sulphur Rock. He graduated as valedictorian from Sulphur Rock High School in 1934 and went on to attend Arkansas College, now Lyon College, on an athletic scholarship.

Garner was honored by the college when he was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame in 1986, named Distinguished Alumni in 1989 and awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree in 1994.

“Carl was just one of our biggest supporters,” said Jon Vestal, Lyon College vice president for institutional advancement. “We are proud to call him one of our alumni. He was a staple at anything we had for years and years. He exemplifies what it means to be an Arkansas College alumnus.”

He graduated in 1938 and began his career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a career that would last until his retirement 58 years later.

He was chief of the engineering division for the Greers Ferry Project in Heber Springs. He also served as resident engineer, winning many awards, such as the Award of Excellence as the No. 1 Resident Engineer out of 440 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes in 1979 and the Keep America Beautiful Iron Eyes Cody Award in 1988.

Tourism on the lake was a major part of his job, and Lindsey said Garner had a lasting impact on tourism all over the state.

“He wasn’t just a resident engineer,” Lindsey said. “He was just so involved in the politics and the tourism aspect. He understood the value of tourism and how it fit in the big picture for the whole state.”

Garner’s relationships with local, state and national officials, as well as residents, fishermen and community entities, made him a fierce and loyal advocate for trout fishing and tourism on Greers Ferry Lake and the Little Red River.

“He pulled strings that nobody — before, since or maybe ever again — will be able to do,” Lindsey said. “There were numerous times he made trips to Washington or called our legislators to make sure things continued. We have one of the most pristine lakes in the South, in large part to Carl Garner’s impact.”

In 1993, the visitor center at the lake was renamed the William Carl Garner Visitor Center by Congress, an honor pointing to Garner’s work.

“Carl was a dedicated public servant,” said Laurie Driver with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “When he began work at Greers Ferry Lake, he said his goal was to make it one of the best facilities in the country — and he did. Today, Greers Ferry Lake is still recognized as one of the Corps’ premier lakes. It is Carl’s vision and the hard work of all our employees that keep Greers Ferry Lake a top vacation destination in the country.”

One highlight of Garner’s career was the dedication of the Greers Ferry Dam project, featuring President John F. Kennedy.

On Oct. 3, 1963, Garner sat on the raised platform at the dam with local, state and national dignitaries as President Kennedy dedicated the Greers Ferry Dam, one of the president’s final public appearances before he was assassinated in Dallas.

“I rode in the car with JFK on the way back to the helicopter,” Carl told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Three Rivers Edition last year. “I sat in the front between two Secret Service men, and he rode in the back with [the late U.S. Sen. John L.] McClellan and [the late U.S. Rep. Wilbur] Mills. As we toured the park on the way back to his helicopter, Kennedy asked the driver to turn on the radio. There was a World Series baseball game going on. ‘I want to see what the World Series score is,’ he said.”

Another tribute to Garner’s dedication toward his career was the Greers Ferry Lake and Little Red River Cleanup, using community volunteers to conserve and preserve the area. These efforts paved the road for the Great Arkansas Cleanup and the Carl Garner Federal Lands Cleanup Day.

Garner was part of Save Greers Ferry Lake Inc., a volunteer organization dedicated to the preservation of the lake. Save Greers Ferry Lake President Leonard Uecker said Garner was dedicated to the lake and gave the organization a voice when it came to interacting with other official entities.

“There’s been no one since who has been so dedicated to keeping the water clean in the lake. The lake was monitored and preserved, and he took care of it like a child,” Uecker said. “Carl never missed a meeting or an opportunity to talk to any organization that had any jurisdiction over the lake. Carl was our mentor, our historian, our fact checker; he was the authority that everyone listened to. The lake was really his life.”

Garner is survived by his wife, Jean; a son and daughter-in-law, Carl Wade and Carole Garner of Little Rock; two granddaughters, Kirsten Garner Brown and her husband, Charles, of Little Rock; Lauren Davila and her husband, Fidel, of Fort Worth, Texas; a great-grandson, Henry Garner Davila; Jean’s daughters and sons-in-law, Jeri and Doug Vangilder of Russellville, and Donna and David Redding of Tumbling Shoals; four grandchildren, Bethany Vangilder, Dana Redding, Tyler Vangilder and Devin Redding; a great-granddaughter, Pyper Bay Vangilder; and a sister, Lucille Stephens of Batesville.

Staff writer Angela Spencer can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or aspencer@arkansasonline.com.

Zoned Editions Staff Writer Angela Spencer can be reached at 501-244-4307 or aspencer@arkansasonline.com.

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