Man known as ‘Mr. Greers Ferry’ led planning of dam’s dedication in 1963

Carol Rolf/Contributing Writer Originally Published September 29, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated September 27, 2013 at 11:29 a.m.
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Carol Rolf/Contributing Photographer

Carl and Jean Garner recall the day President John F. Kennedy came to Heber Springs to dedicate the Greers Ferry Dam. Celebrations of the dam’s dedication have been held since the one in 1963, and the Garners have souvenirs from many of those events, including the program for the 25th anniversary of the dedication. Oct. 3 will mark the 50th-anniversary celebration, and the Garners plan to be there.

HEBER SPRINGS — For many people in Cleburne County and beyond, William “Carl” Garner is “Mr. Greers Ferry.”

Garner, now 98, arrived in Heber Springs in 1959 at the age of 48 to continue his work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, this time serving as chief of the engineering division on the Greers Ferry Dam project. He oversaw the building of the dam from 1959 until its completion in December 1962. His career with the Corps, which started in 1938 in Pocahontas, would eventually total 58 years. He retired in 1996 as resident engineer in charge of operations and maintenance.

On Oct. 3, 1963, Garner sat on the raised platform along with local, state and national dignitaries as President John F. Kennedy dedicated the Greers Ferry Dam.

Garner will attend activities on Thursday when former President Bill Clinton delivers remarks for the 50th-anniversary celebration of the dam. Clinton will speak from the same podium as Kennedy did, a podium that has remained in Garner’s possession since 1963.

“I did most of the planning for the dedication of the dam,” Garner said. “The [Heber Springs Area] Chamber of Commerce and the [Corps] district office helped.

“We had two Secret Service men come down before the dam was dedicated to look over everything. They said, ‘You’ve got the best laid-out facility we’ve ever seen.’”

Carl’s wife, Jean, interjected: “I did all the work, and he got all the glory,” she said with a laugh.

Jean, who is 80, also worked for the Corps of Engineers, serving in the administrative branch. She retired in 1989.

“I made copies, did all the typing and wrote the contracts,” Jean said of her duties related to the dam. “During the dedication ceremony, I was in the information booth and announced that the president was on his way from the overlook shelter to the platform. I was scared to death. All I wanted to do was get the word out and get out of there.”

“We were not married at the time,” Jean said. “We had worked together, and I had worked for him. We finally decided we might try it together. We’ve been married for 41 years now. We’ve had a lot of good times together.”

After the couple married, Jean worked in the district office in Little Rock.

Carl has some fond memories of the time he spent with Kennedy.

“I rode in the car with JFK on the way back to the helicopter,” Carl said. “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,” Carl said. “There was a World Series baseball game going on. ‘I want to see what the World Series score is,’ he said.”

Jean added: “He was real down-to-earth.”

As it turned out, Kennedy’s visit to Greers Ferry Lake would be one of his last public appearances; he was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas.

“That hurt me bad,” Carl said of Kennedy’s death. “I couldn’t stand it. He rode in an open car just like the one he rode in here.

“It really tore me apart. He was such a nice man.”

Jean said Kennedy gave Carl a tie tack in the shape of a PT boat, and he gave her a pin in the shape of a PT boat with “Kennedy” engraved on it. “I’m real pleased to have that,” she said.

Carl later received an autographed photo of the president, which, Jean said, they have in a secure place. Carl keeps a framed copy of the photo to show visitors.

After the dam was built and dedicated, Carl turned his attention to developing and maintaining the lake’s recreational facilities. He also had a hand in planning other celebrations of the dam’s dedication — the 25th, 30th and 40th anniversaries.

In 1970, he initiated the first volunteer Greers Ferry Lake and Little Red River lakeshore cleanup program, the first of its kind in the United States. In 1979, that initiative inspired the Great Arkansas Cleanup of all Corps lakes and the Arkansas River. In 1985, legislation was passed requiring all federal agencies to host volunteer-led cleanups during Labor Day weekend and creating the Federal Lands National Cleanup Day, which was later renamed the Carl Garner Federal Lands Cleanup Day.

Carl said he got to know Bill and Hillary Clinton when Bill was governor.

“They both have been honorary chairmen of our cleanup,” Carl said. “He became a good friend of mine.” Carl has received many local, state and federal honors in recognition of his work over the years. The visitors’ center at the dam site is now named after Garner, as is the street on which he lives with his wife in Tumbling Shoals.

He also shook hands with President Harry Truman when he dedicated the Bull Shoals Dam at Mountain Home.

Carl was born “in Arkansas on a farm,” he said with a smile, “near Sulphur Rock and Moorefield [in Independence County],” he added when asked for more detail.

“I started school in a one-room schoolhouse at Lone Oak,” he said. “It was hard to study with the teacher up in front of us. We had a wood stove for heat. If you sat facing it, you burned up. If you sat with your back toward it, you froze.

“We went to school on a bus — a pickup with a canvas over it with 12 seats in the back. We rode on a dirt road. You had to wash your face when you got to school.”

Carl transferred to Sulphur Rock High School after the ninth grade. He excelled in his studies and in sports, especially basketball. The first year he played, the team won the county tournament.

He was valedictorian of his high school senior class.

“But I was so shy I couldn’t give my speech,” Carl said, smiling. “My brother, who was salutatorian, read my speech for me.”

During the summer after Carl graduated, coaches from Arkansas College (now Lyon College) who had seen him play offered him an athletic scholarship. He lettered in three sports at college — baseball, football and basketball.

While in college, he took a course in surveying that would eventually lead him to the Corps of Engineers. Fifteen days after graduation, he went to work for the Corps.

And the rest, as they say, is history.