Tuesday, August 14, 2012

TOP STORY >> He was there for those in need, elderly or sick

Leader staff writer

Charles Garner was many things: a retired military man who joined the Army Air Corp when he was little more than a boy and then served in WWII, the Korean War and Vietnam; an organic gardener; a lover of corny jokes; a collector of Civil War relics.

But he is perhaps best known as the other half of Charles and Mary Garner, the couple who ran a food bank from the First Presbyterian Church in Beebe that eventually turned into the Christian Outreach Center with participation from many denominations.

Mary died 11 months ago and Charles, who was showing signs of dementia at that time, died August 9. He was 91 years old.

In the early days of the food bank, the Garners were joined by Jack and Faith Olivo, who were a generation younger. Jack, who was disabled with a heart condition, loved the history channel and was attracted to Charles because he had lived through so much and had wonderful stories, Faith Olivo said. But what he really learned from Charles was how to give.

“He was the reason my husband became a committed Christian,” she said.

Charles was almost 70 when he started the food bank with donated beans and rice. But he added vegetables from his own garden and eventually other donations swelled the supply of food to the point that it has been said that at times there was more food on the church pews than church members.

Although there were other volunteers, such as the Olivo grandchildren, who carried the bags of food out to cars during the Saturday food giveaways, Olivo said Charles never shirked that duty. The Garners also hand-delivered food supplies to the elderly or those who were ill and unable to come to the church.

Jack Olivo died three years ago and his wife said that was when she started hearing stories about how he had helped people, helped the way he had learned from Charles.

Josh Bridges, First Presbyterian’s pastor, said he learned a lot while sitting at the Garner kitchen breakfast bar drinking coffee. He ran his ideas for programs by Charles and Charles told him what he thought about them, the pastor said.

“I took a lot of his advice because he had good ideas,” he said.

Like everyone else who knew them, the pastor said it was impossible to think of Charles without thinking of Mary.

But when they were talking to each other, friends said, they were Mr. and Mrs. Garner, never Charles and Mary.

“I think it was their generation,” Olivo said. “Or maybe it was just to show respect. There was so much respect there.”

But there was also a lot of fun and laughter.

Alice Brower said they would come with barrels every fall to get leaves from her yard for the compost for their garden. And Charles would lift Mary into the barrels so she could stomp the leaves down to make room for more.

“I always looked forward to the fall when they came,” Brower said.

Carleen Shinn said the Garners came to her house for horse manure. They would arrive with barrels in the back of their station wagon and shovel it in. Charles called the compost he made from her manure and Brower’s leaves Garner’s goop.

“He put some around my bushes and it really worked,” she said.

The pastor said Charles showed him how he made the goop and he was surprised to learn how much attention it required, daily attention.

“Charlie was organic and eco-friendly before those things became part of pop culture,” he said. “Charlie didn’t know he was trendy. He just thought that was how you did it.

“Charlie was a talented man. He didn’t have a green thumb; he had 10 green fingers. That little garden fed a lot of people in Beebe.

“Charlie Garner will be missed, no doubt,” he said.

No one will forget his smile, his sense of humor, his pear jam or Nosey, the brown thrasher Charles talked into eating from his hand.

In 2004, the Garners moved on to the Shepherd’s Center in Beebe, where they continued their tradition of service while helping out the elderly. “We do training, Bible study, quilting, organic gardening and other things,” Charles Garner told Leader reporter John Hofheimer.

“When Mary died, half of Charlie was gone. Now two halves are one again,” his pastor said.

Garner was born March 19, 1921, in Memphis, the son of A. J. “Jack” and Ruth Garner.

In addition to his wife, Garner was preceded in death by a grandson, Brian Johnson. He is survived by daughters Linda Johnson of Poplar Bluff, Mo., Suzanne O’Dea and her husband Tom of Lake George, N.Y.; one grandson, James Johnson; and two great-grandchildren.

The funeral was Tuesday at Westbrook Funeral Home. He is buried in Meadowbrook Memorial Gardens.