A depressed retiree suffering from a degenerative muscular disorder finds hope amid the flowers
Since he moved to Tyler, Texas, from the White Rock area in 2005, he has logged more than 40,000 miles driving to and from his volunteer job (about 200 miles per round trip).
At age 28, after a tour in Vietnam, he was diagnosed with a slow-progressing form of muscular dystrophy.
“It didn’t impair me too much at the time,” he says. “I could get around fine with a cane.”
He worked for 30-some years at a photography company he owned with his brother (mostly in the darkroom, Gary says, because he was awkward around people). In 2002, they sold the business and retired, after which Gary commenced to sit on the couch, watch TV and sink further each day into an utter funk.
“Something happened in retirement — a lack of purpose. Like the end of work meant the end of life in some way, or at least a large part of it.”
One warm day, Gary’s wife, Linda, attempted to rouse him from depression with a trip to the Dallas Arboretum, which was close to the couple’s White Rock area home. Gary was no stranger to the Arboretum; he’d photographed countless weddings amid the gorgeous gardens, but something about this particular trip touched him and changed the course of his life.
As he sat on a bench and watched the Arboretum’s tram tour pass, his wife nudged him.
“She said, ‘See, you could do something like that,’ ” Gary says.
But since he knew nothing about foliage or horticulture, save reluctantly mowing his lawn once every couple of weeks, he says he verbally dismissed the idea, even as he was quietly considering it. In fact, upon returning home to his couch, he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“I didn’t know enough,” he recalls of his thoughts. “I couldn’t walk well, and I was no good at talking to people …”
Though he had plenty of excuses not to do it, he returned to the Arboretum days later and asked a tram driver how he found his job. The driver directed him to the volunteer office, where he met Cris Emrich, volunteer coordinator.
“I went in and told her all the reasons I thought I’d make a terrible volunteer,” he quips, “and without so much as looking at my cane, she says, ‘Good. We need people.’ Then she gave me paperwork, including a thick manual outlining the Arboretum’s collections.”
Reflecting on that day in May 2003, Emrich, who now works in marketing, says she found a gem in Gary.
“Some people look at disability; others look for ability. If you are turned off by a disability, you might miss out on a great possibility,” she says, adding that it didn’t matter to her that he had a lot to learn when it came to plant life.
“I could see he was a good man with a good heart, and that is the kind of people we want here.”
Gary spent hours and long nights poring over the manual, absorbing as much information as he could about features at the Arboretum.
His first passenger was a tourist from New York City. She enjoyed his tour, she told him, and she even laughed at his joke. The sadness and shyness that had plagued Gary disappeared. He continued to study, and he learned to garden. In a way, gardening was similar to working in the darkroom, he says. The way you coax beautiful plants from the ground is similar to the way an image emerges from a developing photograph, he says.
Today, he lives in Tyler, where his wife accepted a teaching job in 2005. He gets around by wheelchair these days, but that hasn’t slowed him. Emrich says that “need causes a person to become creative,” and that was evident in Gary’s case. He designed and built a wheelchair-friendly garden in Tyler.
“The decomposed granite pathways are perfect for gardening on wheels,” he says.
Gary still drives the tram tours at least twice a month — he just slides from the chair to the vehicle seat.
“The MD hasn’t affected my ankles or calves yet,” he says.
In addition to continuing to log volunteer hours at the Arboretum, Gary lends his time speaking to groups, including aspiring gardeners, retirees and veterans.
“People who know me now would never believe I spent most of my life being shy,” he says. “I think that when they see what I have been able to do, they see that they can do something similar.”
Emrich says Gary’s case is evidence that volunteerism enriches lives, and maybe even saves and extends them.
“So many people have worked hard all their lives, they retire, they go home, they sit down, and they die,” Emrich says.
Volunteering, giving, doing and finding a passion can keep you alive, she says. Gary is living proof of that, and through his work as a tour guide, his late blooming gardening prowess, and his circuit speaking, Emrich says, “he makes people believe.”
Interested in volunteering at the Dallas Arboretum? Contact the Arboretum Volunteer Office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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