Many Georgians have heard Walter Reeves on radio, seen him on television and have read his gardening column. He is as omnipresent and rife as a television evangelist.
While his principled life and familiarity with the Good Book, along with his seasoned stage presence, would qualify him for that line of work, you could bet the house that he would be one without baggage. His life-long embracing of the preachments of the 4-H Club means that he would never have groveled unceremoniously for riches and would never have succumbed to scandalous behavior.
Those familiar with his good-guy image might conclude that his career digging in the dirt and sharing the good news has had a delightful evangelical bent that has inspired and enhanced productivity and fulfillment among gardeners across the state. After all, gardening is such good, clean fun.
There are other occupations he would have been good at, but he has always been a downhome, country boy who first wanted to be a rocket scientist after seeing Sputnik dawdle across the heavens. He reads the New York Times and the New Yorker, usually when he is barefoot.
That is a habit he picked up while growing up on the farm in Fayetteville, which he couldn’t wait to leave in the rear view mirror when he left home for the University of Georgia in 1969 — only to learn that you can’t take the boy out of the country and, for sure, you can’t take the country out of this multifaceted boy.
In Athens he majored in chemistry, which is at the core of plant and animal existence but not necessarily germane for one who would leave campus and spend his life in 4-H Club evangelism, gardening, radio and television; and writing books in his spare time.
For years when I would be driving somewhere on Saturday mornings, like to the golf course or to a hardware store, I would tune into WSB for Walter’s gardening show, which became one of the station’s most popular programs. Although retired, he still has a presence on the station each Saturday morning. Known as “Georgia’s Gardener,” Walter’s folksy, insightful gardening tips were always laced with humor. His easygoing style made you feel as at home as his granddaddy felt when he listened to one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats in the ’30s.
In grade school Walter was introduced to the 4-H Club. It would be a fit for life. He was smitten with endless projects and leadership opportunities, but most of all, his introduction to the 4-H Center at Rock Eagle became a touchstone constant. He was overwhelmed with the camp experience at the state 4-H facility and is one of its proudest alumni, never turning down an opportunity to spend time there.
When the chapel near Eatonton burned down last year, Walter was among the first to contribute and to lead the effort to raise a million dollars to restore the building. “I’ll always be indebted to 4-H,” Walter says. “The 4-H Club made my career.”
There is a hint of sadness in his voice when he talks about Rock Eagle today as he laments that the coronavirus forced state officials to close the 4-H camp this summer. “I know what it meant to me,” he says. “I just hate it that so many kids who were looking forward to a summer at Rock Eagle cannot have that experience this year.”
With his far-reaching reputation, Walter, a long-time employee of the University’s extension service, is a popular speaker across the state. But nothing exhilarates him more than to return to Rock Eagle where he flashes back to his youth, when he listened to fascinating speakers, engaged in self-help projects and recited the 4-H pledge with feeling and commitment: “I pledge my head to clearer thinking; I pledge my heart to greater loyalty; I pledge my hands to larger service, I pledge my health to better living.”
Nobody has truly lived the tenets of that pledge more than Walter Reeves, who believes that 4-H and its principles have the potential to keep kids on the right path. He is a 4-H Club lifer who bleeds green. “Fortunately, I’m just one of many,” he says proudly.
If you were to happen by his home in DeKalb County, you might find him out in his garden, tending to his okra, beans and corn or in his kitchen preoccupied with his baking specialty, muscadine hull pie. More than likely, he will be barefoot.
Makes one wonder what it would have been like for him, if he had become a rocket scientist. Would they have let him consort about a lab in his bare feet?
And this parting shot: If our cities want to solve their problems, organize 4-H Clubs — not just for the kids, but the politicians themselves.