Lasting impact

Garrett’s legacy is community service



(February 2006)

Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

Whenever I saw Jeff Garrett, he always greeted me with a big “Hi Don!” and a hearty handshake.
It was an enthusiastic, welcoming expression that sounded like the guy was really glad to see you – a warm, spirited greeting that you would expect from close friends at a family gathering. The first few times it happened, I thought Garrett’s greeting was a special one reserved for me. But I soon learned that he greeted lots of people this way. And that realization never once diminished the warm feeling I got whenever I saw him.
He was a friendly guy, no doubt. And he knew how to bring others together to accomplish a goal or to reach into their pocketbooks and support a new festival or community initiative. He was perfect for the role as executive vice president of the Madison Area Chamber of Commerce, a position he held for three years until his unexpected death on Oct. 30.
He didn’t twist people’s arms to do things because when Jeff Garrett called, you wanted to do it for him. You knew he had the community’s well-being at heart. It was never about Jeff Garrett or his place in history.
I worked closely with Garrett on several occasions, primarily the Madison Ribberfest, one of four new events he conceived in recent years. The others were the chamber’s Soup, Stew, Chili & Brew food and music event on Main Street, the chamber’s first Texas Hold ‘Em poker tournament and the yet-to-be-held Ohio River Valley Folk Festival, still in the planning stages for this May.

Jeff Garrett

Jeff Garrett

In January 2003, Garrett called me and his brother-in-law, Kevin Carlson, into an impromptu meeting to quickly design and produce a brochure for the Ribberfest. We met for 30 minutes and had the brochure to the printer within a week.
Garrett called me to help on other occasions, and I was always privileged and glad to help. He was an “idea guy” who was always planning the next move, even as he executed the final touches of a current project that had its beginnings in his own head. I admired him for his ideas, but I soon learned that the secret to his success was his ability to rally people to his side and get them involved to make his ideas become a reality.
That’s real leadership.
Garrett had an illustrious career in Madison as an eight-year city councilman, Madison Regatta president, two-time chamber president, the first Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau president, the first director of the Small Business Development Center and president of the Indiana Small Business Corp. He was involved in the start-up of the Venture Out Business Center, a business incubator that houses the chamber office today.
He left Madison for Indianapolis, where he started and operated three security companies. But because of his deteriorating health that began in 1995 and congestive heart failure that he suffered in November 2000, he sold his companies and returned to Madison in late 2000.
But Garrett never slowed down. He conceived and organized the Madison Ribberfest in 2002, then accepted the chamber directorship the following year.
In June 2003, Garrett developed a bone infection and had to have his lower right leg amputated. He was back to work two weeks later. When I first saw him after his leg had been removed, he was being helped out of a van by his wife, Lisa, and into a wheelchair outside the Visitors Center where he was attending a Ribberfest meeting. I helped him into the building. It was quite an ordeal for him to get around town in that wheelchair, but he never once expressed his pain publicly. Though his body was deteriorating, his spirit never wavered. A few months later, he was fitted for a prosthesis, which he often wore to avoid the chair.
On a few occasions over the past year, however, I accompanied Jeff back to his office after a meeting and he would sit down to rest and confide that he was tired. He didn’t always look as good as he tried to act.
Last fall, Garrett was at home recuperating from a heart attack when he slumped over in his chair while watching his favorite TV show, “West Wing.”
News of his death on Monday morning startled the Madison community. Like many, I was stunned when I heard it. Garrett himself had told his chamber staff that he planned to see his doctor the following Tuesday in hopes of getting approval to return to work soon. He told his staff he had many new ideas to share.
I went to the funeral home the next night and stood in line for more than an hour to see Jeff one last time. A photo image of his yet-unborn granddaughter was taped on the casket lid that rose above him. Next to it was a Purdue Boilermaker train, representing the alma mater he proudly supported.
I cried and said goodbye, half expecting him to sit up and greet me with a big “Hi Don!”
At that moment I realized that Jeff Garrett was more than a politician, chamber director or festival organizer. I had lost a close friend, whose feelings for me – like many others – were genuine, as expressed in his warm greetings every time I saw him. It’s been three months since his death, and I miss him.
It is fitting that the Madison Area Chamber of Commerce chose to rename its prestigious annual Community Service Award after him. Chamber officials announced the news before a crowd of more than 350 people attending the Jan. 25 Annual Dinner at Hanover College.
For years to come, Garrett’s name will be associated with future award winners who demonstrate the same self-less work to make their town a better place to live and work.
Garrett’s name was evoked several times throughout the evening. In the opening minutes of the program, the audience observed a moment of silence in his memory. Images of the late chamber director flashed repeatedly on the large screen throughout the evening in a Powerpoint presentation of the past year’s events.
Later, with Garrett’s parents, Otha and Mary Garrett present in the audience, chamber Executive Assistant Leisa Grimmet made a special presentation to Garrett’s wife, Lisa, and son, Drew, dedicating the award in Jeff’s honor.
Grimmet recalled her former boss, saying, “He defined the word ‘involvement,’ and because of that spirit, we wanted to rename this award so future dreamers can continue on that legacy.” Grimmet announced the birth just four days earlier of Garrett’s granddaughter, Madalyn Victoria James, a 7-pound, 4-ounce girl born to his daughter, Michelle Garrett.
Lisa Garrett, with tears welling in her eyes and holding the plaque that bore her husband’s photo, also described his love for the job and the dreams he shared with her and others. She thanked the chamber for supporting her husband’s ideas during his tenure. “My wish is that everyone finds a job that fulfills him as much as this job did for Jeff. He was challenged, physically, of course, but it also drained him, mentally.”
Despite those challenges, Jeff Garrett was the consummate community servant to the end. And what a mark he left on Madison and Jefferson County and the people with whom he lived and worked, including me.

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: Don@RoundAboutMadison.com.


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