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 Garretts 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 didnt twist peoples arms to do things because when Jeff
Garrett called, you wanted to do it for him. You knew he had the
communitys 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 chambers Soup, Stew, Chili & Brew food and music event
on Main Street, the chambers 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.
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.
Thats 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
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 didnt 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
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. Its 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, Garretts 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.
Garretts 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 years events.
Later, with Garretts parents, Otha and Mary Garrett present in the
audience, chamber Executive Assistant Leisa Grimmet made a special presentation
to Garretts wife, Lisa, and son, Drew, dedicating the award in Jeffs
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 Garretts 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 husbands photo, also described his love for the job and
the dreams he shared with her and others. She thanked the chamber for
supporting her husbands 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,
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.