CUMMING -- Stephen Garton was busy packing up books and posters about horticulture and wildlife last week.
After about five years on the job, the Forsyth County Extension Office agent’s official last day was Feb. 28.
“Originally when I came here, I had planned to retire around 68, so that would have given me another three years,” said Garton, a native of England.
But those plans changed when his wife of 43 years, Melanie, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Garton said she has been battling the illness for about several years.
“Looking at everything that’s happening, now is a better time to retire than later,” he said. “We have lots of relatives in England still and we haven’t been over to see them in about five years.”
Garton and Melanie, who have three grown children and one grandchild, are planning a long trip across the pond soon. He said the family first left their native land in the 1970s to come to the United States for educational purposes.
“I had an invitation from a professor in horticulture at the University of Minnesota to come over and do a master’s degree,” he said.
“I remember my mother saying as we were leaving, teary-eyed, ‘I don’t think I’m ever going to see you again.’ And I said, ‘Oh no, no, we’re only going for two years.’ Fancy lying to one’s mother, but it wasn’t an intentional lie.
“I thought I’d go for two years, get the master’s degree and go back home. But we never moved back and I didn’t even get the master’s degree. I changed over to a Ph.D. program and did that instead.”
While the family never returned to England to live, they have made many trips to visit over the years.
But Garton said with three children — Ben, 38, Alex, 36, and Emily, 26 — the family never saw themselves living in their native country again.
“Having kids that grew up as American children, when we’d take them back to England, it would be, ‘We don’t like England because we don’t like the food, we don’t like the weather,’” Garton joked.
“By then my wife and I were employed and living in the United States and it’s difficult to move back 3,000 miles.”
After completing his Ph.D. in horticulture, Garton first worked in the private sector in Utah.
“I worked for a biotechnical company back in the boom days of biotech, which was the 1980s,” he said. “I was there from about ’82 to ’92.”
He then moved into the public sector and worked as a researcher and instructor at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville.
“So we came from the high deserts of Utah to the lush, green of Alabama,” Garton said. “I worked there for about seven years and then went to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.”
In Tennessee, Garton held his first Extension Service job, where he traversed the entire state helping people with various horticulture issues.
He said the family had some issues with communication when they first arrived in the South.
“People wouldn’t listen to what we were saying, they would just listen to how we said it,” he joked. “They’d say, ‘Oh, just say that again.’
“And we had to keep saying, ‘Excuse me, could you say that again.’ Because everyone just spoke so fast that we couldn’t understand what they were saying. It took us about six months to get used to the Southern pronunciations.”
In 2005, Garton left the University of Tennessee to take a job with the University of Georgia Extension Service.
“I went down to be the director of the bamboo farm and coastal garden in Savannah,” he said.
About three years later, in the wake of the down economy, Garton said his supervisor at the time advised he might want to look for other job options.
“The bamboo farm had been on the chopping block before in previous [state budget] cuts and the local director said looking for another job might be good in case the place was on the chopping block again,” Garton said.
That’s when Garton moved to Forsyth County, which he said was a good change for the family.
“We actually prefer the climate here because it’s not so horribly hot as it is down in Savannah,” he said.
He noted that the post also brought new professional challenges.
“Forsyth County was, and still is really, going through really rapid growth and there had been a lot of land use changes from forest or pasture or farmland into housing,” he said.
“The Extension Service is one office that can help people understand how to conserve the environment and keep habitat for wildlife, make sure the soils are functioning properly, that water is being filtered properly before it ends up in Lake Lanier or the river.”
Perhaps more than anything, Garton said he has enjoyed the people of the county.
“I get to meet a lot of people and go to their farms or their homes or their landscapes or their greenhouses and see lots of things, so I feel like I can really help some of these people because I have such a diverse set of experiences myself,” he said.
“I’ve also made lots of friends with volunteers and clients, so Melanie and I have a good base of friends here.”
Garton was quick to credit his fellow Extension Office staff members.
“I’ve been fortunate to come into an office where people can work with each other in cooperative ways and they don’t get their egos bent out of shape,” he said.
“I came into an office where the staff members are all motivated and everybody gets along with each other. We have really great professionals here in our office.”
He also praised all the volunteers in the various Extension programs such as family and consumer science and the 4-H teams, as well as other entities and agencies throughout the county.
“We’ve got huge opportunities here and we’ve got great partners with the board of education and the board of commissioners that really support the personnel in this office, so it's been a great place to be.”
While Garton will enjoy spending more time with his family in retirement, he said he would miss his relationships with others throughout the community.
“I will probably miss the people mostly, the people whose lives you touched in one way or another because that really is where the satisfaction is in this job,” he said. “Being able to see people who are struggling or who don’t understand some things and helping them.
“It’s the relationships that you build with people that are the foundations of any Extension agent’s ability to communicate with his or her clients.”